Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker, in their first one-on-one televised debate, on Tuesday night sought to be the most compassionate candidate in the governor’s race, but also attacked each other’s records and plans for the future.
With less than two weeks until Election Day and polls indicating a dead heat, both Coakley and Baker were tightly controlled and at times tense as they worked to avoid major gaffes or viral video moments that could suddenly upend the race.
But they still clashed over the most charged issues in the contest, including allegations that Coakley had ignored dire warnings about the problems in the state’s child protection system and that Baker was involved in a pay-to-play scandal.
Over the hour-long debate, Coakley repeatedly challenged Baker on his record at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, faulting him for increasing his salary and raising premiums while striking a deal that ultimately sent some jobs overseas. Baker appeared to talk at greater length and in deeper detail, while Coakley struck back with some shorter, sharper retorts.
Baker took swipes at Coakley, as well, but seemed more determined to protect his warmer image and appeal to undecided and urban voters he will need to win in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
He spoke less of spreadsheets and corporate experience and more about his urban agenda. At one point, he pledged that if he could use the governor’s bully pulpit to tackle one issue, it would be to find more nighttime activities for urban youth.
During another exchange, he recalled his experience riding along with a police officer on a Friday night in Dorchester. He recounted seeing families barbecuing and cheerleaders at a football game, and said the officer, “Sergeant Johnson,” recognized many of the faces at the field.
“We’ve got to embed ourselves — as human beings — in these communities, so people understand not only do we care about them, but we get where they’re coming from,” said Baker, who lives in Swampscott.
Coakley responded pointedly, dismissing Baker’s experience as a brief foray into a minority community.
“Well, in fairness, I’ve done that for about 18 years as an assistant district attorney and a district attorney,” she said. “So I’m glad you got the ride along, Charlie.”
Baker’s desire to cultivate a softer image — a contrast with the hard-edged tone he presented in his 2010 campaign for governor — was evident throughout the night. When he was asked what the biggest misconception about him is, he said he chafed at the image painted by Democrats that he cares more about numbers than people.
“For me, it’s always been about people, and it bothers me that a guy who is pretty facile with math, which does matter when you’re talking about a $38 billion budget, is somehow considered to be somebody who doesn’t care about people,” he said.
But Coakley did not concede that point, hammering the argument that he privatized mental health services and cut jobs when he was in state government in the 1990s and then increased his salary while outsourcing jobs at Harvard Pilgrim.
“I wouldn’t make those choices, Charlie,” she said, adding, “We can debate about whether you’re a good guy or not; I don’t dispute that. It’s about the values that drive your choices.”
The debate, sponsored by the Boston Globe and WGBH, featured the candidates seated closely at a table, answering questions from moderators Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, who sat across from them. Globe reporters also provided videotaped questions.
Without the three independent candidates — Evan Falchuk, Scott Lively, and Jeff McCormick — the two leading contenders spent more time parsing and defending their records than in the previous, five-person debates. The election is Nov. 4.
As he has in past debates, Baker sharply criticized Coakley for defending the state from a lawsuit filed by a children’s advocacy group that has accused the Department of Children and Families of failing to properly care for foster children. He said her decision “not to fix it but to fight it” showed “a lack of judgment.”
Coakley responded by pointing out that the case was dismissed by a judge and said she was right to push back against “outside lawyers suing us with a one-size-fits-all solution.”
The problems at DCF surfaced again when the candidates watched clips of attack ads being run on their behalf by super PACs, including one ad that harshly criticizes Coakley for fighting the lawsuit. Coakley called the ad “heinous” and said it essentially argues that “I sat by while children were killed.”
“That’s outrageous,” she said.
But Baker said that although he disagreed with the tone of the ad, the questions it raised about her fight against the lawsuit were legitimate. And he expressed indignation that Coakley would criticize him for the ad when he said the first attack ad aired by a super PAC in the race went after him.
“She doesn’t have any credibility on this issue, in my opinion,” he said.
Coakley sought to put Baker on the defensive over allegations that he was involved in a play-to-play scheme involving a donation he made while working for a Cambridge-based venture capital firm. Baker donated $10,000 to the New Jersey state Republican Party in 2011. Democrats have tried to tie that to a $15 million investment the New Jersey pension fund then made with General Catalyst, the firm for which Baker was working.
Baker said he had commissioned an outside legal review that showed he did nothing wrong.
But Coakley said the issue was by no means settled. “He’s under investigation now for a pay-to-play scheme,” she said. “Those facts at least on their face indicate at least from my point of view a reason to investigate.”
In a rare moment of pique, Baker shot back that Coakley is the one with a tarnished record involving campaign cash, alluding to a controversy last spring when Coakley settled allegations that she used her federal US Senate funds for state political activities.
“Can I just point out there’s only one person at this table who has paid a campaign violation fine, and that’s the attorney general?” he said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@