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Galvin and Zakim’s first major debate in secretary of state race turned ugly — quickly

Longtime incumbent Bill Galvin and his challenger Josh Zakim (right) debated on WGBH's Greater Boston with Jim Braude (left). Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

The first televised debate between Secretary of State William Galvin and his Democratic challenger, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, quickly turned into a rancorous battle between the longtime incumbent and upstart candidate.

Out of the gate Tuesday evening, Galvin accused Zakim of making “misstatements” on his record — while Zakim accused Galvin of building an “empire” after two decades that allowed him to use his office for political gain.

“This anger you have is an example of why challenges in a democracy are so important,” Zakim, 34, said.

Later on, Galvin, 67, charged that Zakim has not brought any policy changes that could rival his record. “The city council has nothing to do with making law. I know it’s a fantasy,” he said, before he was interrupted by Zakim, who took issue with Galvin’s dig.


The debate, moderated by WGBH’s Greater Boston host Jim Braude, was billed as the first televised debate between Galvin and Zakim, who will face off on the Sept. 4 Democratic primary ballot. Throughout the 30-minute session, the two spoke over each other, cut each other off, and lashed out whenever one accused the other of misleading voters.

From the onset, Galvin, facing his first primary challenge in more than a decade, sought to defend his record after 24 years in the secretary of state’s office. When Braude asked why the secretary would hold a primary on the Tuesday after Labor Day, Galvin said he had no other choice: The following two Tuesdays fall on Jewish holidays, and the Thursday after Labor Day is the start of the school year in many districts. He said he believed that the Sept. 4 election, while not ideal, presented the best opportunity for voters to cast a ballot.

Zakim charged back, “it’s certainly not a move to increase turnout,” and he blamed the secretary for failing to convince the Legislature to approve early voting in Massachusetts.


“I think the fact that we don’t have early voting already in the law is a responsibility of the secretary,” Zakim said.

Galvin lashed back at Zakim’s charge that Massachusetts fails to improve voter access, saying the state was ranked eighth in the country in a recent MIT study, and that 4 million voters are registered. Three-quarters of them voted in the last presidential election, he said.

“I’m tired of listening to misstatements just like this,” he said. “We have a great turnout in Massachusetts.”

When Zakim said turnout in non-presidential elections has actually been low, Galvin pointed out that his challenger did not vote in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, when former Governor Deval Patrick won the nomination, or in 2004, when former senator John Kerry won the presidential primary.

“You criticize me for a low primary, but you didn’t vote,” said Galvin. Zakim responded that at the time he was in college, which he attended out of state.

Under criticism that the state does not allow same-day voter registration, Galvin said he has lobbied before for such a law. “I’ve never seen you at a hearing,” he said to Zakim, who responded that he had pushed for the change at the city level.

Zakim declined calls by Galvin to take what is known as the People’s Pledge to refuse support from anonymous, undisclosed campaign contributions. He argued that Galvin was trying to distract voters from his own use of taxpayer dollars to fund campaign-style videos touting his record in office.


“This is a simple question, just say yes and we won’t have any corporate money here in Massachusetts,” Galvin interrupted. “One has nothing to do with the other.”

“It has a lot to do with it,” Zakim shot back.

Later, in a press release, Galvin alleged that Zakim is poised to benefit from a Political Action Committee, called Forward in Mass., set up by a Chicago-based attorney.

There is no indication that the committee was established on Zakim’s behalf. But Galvin pointed out that candidates in other primaries have already rejected outside money. The Chicago attorney, Drew Beres, has only made one known donation in the state — to Zakim’s council campaign in 2013.

Beres has not responded to Globe inquiries for comment.

The Zakim campaign said late Tuesday that Zakim met Beres at a fund-raiser in 2013, but that he hasn’t spoken to him since. “The campaign cannot, has not and will not accept a dime from this, or any other, independent expenditure organization,” the campaign said, accusing Galvin of creating a “false narrative” to hide his own use of taxpayer and campaign dollars.

Zakim questioned the secretary on if he had policed the securities industry. State House News Service reported Tuesday that a defendant in a federal investor fraud indictment had worked for Galvin as a consultant for at least nine years.

Galvin argued that the man worked as an information technology consultant in the Registry of Deeds division, and he was fired.


Zakim argued that Galvin did not have control of securities investigations or other matters in the office, at a time that election security remains a concern.

“This was happening literally under your nose,” he said. “It’s troubling he’s a network specialist, and we’re talking about election security in this race.”

Galvin responded, “We have not been hacked, we have a secure system.”

Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValenciaG