Metro

Hundreds attend forum for Democratic gubernatorial, DA candidates

More than 500 people turned out Thursday night for the final joint appearance by Democratic gubernatorial candidates Bob Massie and Jay Gonzalez before the Sept. 4 primary.

Candidates for district attorney in Middlesex and Suffolk counties also participated in the two-hour event hosted by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which represents 41 churches, mosques and synagogues.

“What you saw happening here was American democracy at its best,” said Beverly Williams, one of the lead organizers with GBIO, told the crowd that filled the Boston Teachers Union in Dorchester.

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As people crowded into the large room, a choir from the Fourth Presbyterian Church sang at the front of the stage. The Rev. Carrington Moore from Bethel AME said an opening prayer.

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“Lord bless these candidates and hope at the heart of their mission is the desire to love mercy and do justice,” he said, evoking a hearty “amen” from the audience.

GBIO, a social justice organization which does not make endorsements, asked gubernatorial candidates Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie three questions about affordable homeownership, healthcare, and whether they would attend a similar event after the primary.

To engage the audience, GBIO handed out score sheets, which listed the questions asked and stated whether each candidate had a “yes” or “no” position. The organization offered these to prioritize the candidates’ stances on different issues.

On affordable housing, they each pointed to systemic concerns. Gonzalez, a state budget chief under former governor Deval Patrick, focused on his experience in leadership and business in presenting his case.

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“We’ve got a huge homeownership gap between people of color and white people and we need to be intentional about that,” he said.

Their sharpest difference came on a question about mergers between large healthcare companies, referencing the pending Beth Israel Deaconess and Lahey deal. Both affirmed their commitment to single-payer healthcare, and drew resounding applause from the crowd.

Massie, an environmental activist from Somerville who ran for lieutenant governor in 1994, spoke about his poor childhood and his decades of work for progressive causes. He said that he had been committed to single-payer for 40 years and that Gonzalez had only recently come to the position.

“I was in a wheelchair and I watched my parents worry every single day. I know what that feels like,” he said.

Questions posed to the candidates for district attorney drew more varied answers from the seven candidates assembled, five from Suffolk County and two from Middlesex.

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Notably, one candidate – Greg Henning, who is running for Suffolk County DA – did not attend. Williams announced his decision to the crowd and said he had “reneged on his commitment.”

Henning’s column on the GBIO scorecard read “did not respond yes or no” in bright red ink.

The DA candidates discussed mandatory minimums and bail after hearing statements from community leaders. Firdosa Hassan, a teacher in Roxbury who is a member of the Somali community, spoke of the pain of watching Somali mothers knock on her door to ask for bail money for their sons.

Donnell Wright spoke to his experience being incarcerated due to mandatory minimums on a non-violent drug charge, a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many listening.

Many candidates cited community ties and a long history working on issues of criminal justice. Those who answered “no” to the questions explained their stances firmly and succinctly, often drawing murmurs and nods from the attentive, note-taking crowd.

At the end of the night, the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, the former president of GBIO, noted that there were five women and five people of color running for office. His comments were met with shouts and applause from the crowd, who prayed together in closing.

“It’s always good to think through these issues with people of faith,” said Nancy Zollers, 66, a member of the Union Church in Waban. “Instead of stump speeches, we heard speeches from the heart.”

After the event, citizens and candidates milled about in the lobby of the Boston Teachers Union to listen and learn.

“When people talk about their faith, they are trying to vocabulary for the deepest values they hold,” said Massie in an interview after the event. “GBIO shows that these different traditions have many meeting points.”

As the crowd dispersed, Wright spoke to Tony Pierre, 29, the security guard at the event who has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Massachusetts Boston. The two men discussed how to navigate prioritizing experience and expertise in helping other black men seek justice, and their role in solving systemic problems.

“It’s a game based on money, not justice,” Wright said. “This is something that touches all people.”

Amelia Nierenberg can be reached at amelia.nierenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ajnierenberg.