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Coakley, Baker spar in high-octane morning forum

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

The forum took place in a cavernous ballroom at Westin Copley Place Boston Hotel in front of a big audience of business, civic, and political leaders.

By Globe staff 

Both major party gubernatorial candidates had apparently downed their coffee Wednesday morning. Or maybe their espresso.

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker tangled in a contentious 8 a.m. forum, just 12 hours after another debate had ended.

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In a 60-minute exchange, the most potent back-and-forth came over Coakley’s child-protection credentials and Baker’s compensation when he was chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, issues about which super PACs, big-spending outside groups, have aired television ads in the race.

Echoing an attack by a super PAC aligned with Democrats, Coakley criticized Baker’s six- and seven-figure salary at Harvard Pilgrim.

She did not dispute that he helped turn the company around, but she knocked how he got there. Among other issues, she cited increased premium costs.

“While people are suffering because of the cuts he says he had to make, his salary goes up threefold to $1.7 million,” Coakley, the attorney general, said, reviving a line of attack Democrats also used against Baker during his 2010 gubernatorial run.

Baker said his priorities at Harvard Pilgrim were to save the company and jobs associated with the health care industry in Massachusetts.

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And then he pushed directly back at Coakley’s attack and framed it as politically motivated. He pointed out that Harvard Pilgrim is a nonprofit, which, he said, means executive compensation is overseen by the attorney general.

He said that he found it odd that Coakley today thinks his compensation was inappropriate, but that “she was perfectly happy to sign off on it when I was the CEO there and she was the attorney general.”

“Except I wasn’t the attorney general then,” Coakley shot back, “so I didn’t sign off on it.”

Baker, voice subdued, asked if she was the attorney general in 2008 and Coakley, who was first elected in 2006, acknowledged that she was.

“That’s when I made $1.7 million,” he said.

“But I don’t give approval to those; you know that, Charlie,” Coakley replied, later reiterating to reporters that the state’s chief law enforcement officer does not OK executive compensation for nonprofits.

A Baker spokesman, Tim Buckley, said the GOP nominee was using a figure of speech when he said she signed off on his compensation.

In a statement, Buckley said that Coakley “took no issue with Charlie’s salary at Harvard Pilgrim which, like all nonprofits, are under the oversight of the attorney general, filed salary information with her office in 2007, 2008, and 2009, but now in the heat of a political campaign she’s trying to raise it as an issue. This is Beacon Hill double-talk at its finest.”

After the debate, Coakley said the nonprofit division of the attorney general’s office wrote to health insurers, including Harvard Pilgrim, in 2009, saying it was increasing its oversight of executive compensation practices.

As she has in recent days, Coakley sharply disputed a Republican-aligned super PAC TV ad that noted the state’s troubled Department of Children and Families and painted the attorney general as having failed to protect the state’s most vulnerable children.

She robustly defended her work helping to protect children as a district attorney and as attorney general. And she threw a glancing blow at Baker, saying troubles with the state agency existed when Baker was in state government, too. Baker defended his record and tangled with Coakley over her defense of a lawsuit brought against DCF by Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group based in New York. a topic of the anti-Coakley ad.

Coakley defended DCF against the suit — which sought to compel the agency to boost standards of care, among other actions — in her capacity as attorney general.

“I think the Commonwealth would have been better served and the people would have been better served by that agency if, instead of litigating that case, Massachusetts, like 15 other states, had moved forward with a plan to fix what was broken,” Baker said.

Coakley underscored that there are problems that need to be fixed at DCF, but said she stood by her decision to fight the case, saying it was trying to impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution that was not right for Massachusetts and noting that the suit had been dismissed.

During the debate, both candidates were pressed by moderator Bob Oakes of WBUR to directly ask super PACs supporting them to not air ads savaging their opponent. Neither Baker nor Coakley would do so.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce forum took place in a cavernous event space at the Westin Copley Place Boston Hotel in front of a big audience of business, civic, and political leaders who were drinking coffee, but appeared more subdued than the people on stage.

At the beginning of the forum, the candidates also discussed their economic development plans and barriers to business in the state. Baker expressed concern that some businesses that reach a certain size look outside Massachusetts to expand and expressed his desire to change that. Coakley spoke about the importance of making government a good partner in innovation and helping children here get a strong science and technology education.

Coakley, Baker, and three independent candidates — Evan Falchuk, Scott Lively, and Jeff McCormick — face off on Nov. 4 in the race to succeed Governor Deval Patrick.

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Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.