Metro

Baker, Coakley square off in gubernatorial debate in Chicopee

Democrat Martha Coakley, left, and Republican Charlie Baker, right, sparred in a debate in Chicopee Thursday.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Democrat Martha Coakley, left, and Republican Charlie Baker, right, sparred in a debate in Chicopee Thursday.

Two nights after their first one-on-one televised debate in the gubernatorial race, Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley clashed again Thursday in Chicopee.

The pair squared off in the studios of WWLP-22News and began on a somber note, with each candidate sending their thoughts and prayers to the family of former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who announced earlier in the day that he was suspending his book tour and cancer treatments.

But the gloves soon came off in the debate.

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Coakley threw the opening jab by criticizing Baker’s running mate, former state representative Karyn Polito, whom she called a Tea Party favorite.

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Baker defended Polito, describing her voting record in the Legislature as a “classic Massachusetts Republican voting record,” noting her support for abortion rights and stem cell research, among other initiatives.

Coakley then shifted to Baker’s tenure as the state’s health and human services chief in the 1990s, when he moved many mental health patients out of state institutions and into community settings.

“What do you say to 700 people who lost their jobs or the thousands of people forced to wait for critical mental health care?” she asked.

Baker said a bipartisan commission backed his efforts to transition patients out of troubled state institutions, and that thousands of jobs were created in community facilities as a result, though Coakley said those facilities were under-funded.

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She also criticized Baker for the pay hike he received when he led the health insurer Harvard Pilgrim in the midst of layoffs at the company and rising premiums for customers, as well as his involvement in what she said was a “pay to play” scandal between a hedge fund he worked at and the New Jersey pension system.

Baker stayed on message, maintaining that he took over Harvard Pilgrim at a dire time in the company’s history and turned it around, in part by making tough choices. He said the former top lawyer at the Federal Election Commission advised him that he committed no wrongdoing in the New Jersey case, which involved a campaign contribution.

The Republican also went on the offensive, asking Coakley if she opposed past funding cuts by Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to the state’s human services budget.

He cited a $40 million cut from the state Department of Children and Families that was made at about the same time that a lawsuit was filed against the agency by a child welfare group pushing for reforms.

Other lines of attack from Baker included his suggestion that Coakley was open to raising taxes, noting her support for continuing to tie the gas tax to the rate of inflation, which he said is an automatic annual hike that lawmakers do not have to vote on.

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The debate in Chicopee was held on the same day that a Globe poll showed Baker had jumped out to a commanding lead in the race, by a margin of 45 percent to 36 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The independent candidates are Evan Falchuk, Scott Lively, and Jeff McCormick. Voters go the polls on Nov. 4.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.