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Secretary of State William Galvin and his primary challenger, City Councilor Josh Zakim, do seem to agree on this: Their primary is a nasty one.

But how did it get this way? At a Friday afternoon debate, Galvin said Zakim shot first with a negative campaign ad pointing to his votes in the Legislature from more than three decades ago. Zakim said the campaign turned negative the moment he announced in November, starting when the incumbent called him names in the media (Galvin called him “sneaky” in a Boston Herald column).

“He’s continued to keep up those criticisms, and those sort of attacks, from the very beginning of this campaign,” Zakim said at the University of Massachusetts Club downtown.

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It was probably their final faceoff before the Sept. 4 Democratic primary. And although Friday’s hour-long debate — presented by the Globe, WBUR, and UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies — was more congenial than other meetings between the two Democrats, both candidates sought to land lasting blows.

Returning to that first television ad that Galvin said was nasty, Zakim pointed out his opponent’s votes more than 30 years ago to restrict abortion, for the death penalty, and to prevent same-sex couples from adopting. He said voters should know the values of their elected officials, at a time that civil rights are being challenged at the national level.

Galvin said Zakim had distorted his record, cherrypicking certain votes that he attributed to parliamentary procedure, while ignoring his stance on those issues over his career. He said he respects a woman’s right to choose.

He also said he voted in favor of a landmark gay rights bill in the 1980s, which passed by only four votes. Zakim was barely 6, Galvin noted. He accused Zakim of fear-mongering.

“I think it’s an effort to hide the total lack of qualifications for the office you seek,” Galvin said.

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Galvin argued that voters are seeking honesty. “On that, I think I have a superior position,” he said.

Zakim, who took heat earlier in the campaign for not casting ballots in more than a dozen elections during his 20s, pointed out that Galvin missed hundreds of votes in his final years as a state legislator, what he called an “abdication of duty.”

He accused Galvin of politicizing the office, and handing out nearly $1 million in no-bid state projects to Beacon Hill insiders. He said he would be more transparent with his administration.

Galvin argued that the contracts went to qualified experts, including an election specialist who monitored local polling places. He said he could not discount their expertise based on their past work or connections.

Galvin again called on Zakim to take his proposed “People’s Pledge” to reject third-party spending in the race, saying Zakim is poised to benefit from “dark money” from the financial industry, which he would be responsible for regulating as secretary of state. He said corporations and financial institutions have donated heavily to Zakim’s campaign – he has raised some $600,000 in donations over the last year – including a $1,000 donation in June from the former CEO of a financial institution that Galvin disciplined eight times for cheating investors.

“How is he going to regulate this, when he is going to take money from people who rip off the citizens of Massachusetts, who I have disciplined?” Galvin asked. “I’m sure they’re very happy to hope that I’m gone, so they can come in and do business and rip people off again.”

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Zakim shot back that he signed a version of the pledge already — holding out a piece of paper — that rejects third-party spending, with a condition that they hold two more debates.

“I don’t understand what your hesitance to agree to debates in the interest of transparency is. The voters deserve it, and I think they should get it,” he said.

Zakim reiterated what he has called his progressive agenda to improve voter access, pointing out that the state still does not allow same-day registration, and only recently approved automatic voter registration. He accused Galvin of using old-school political tactics to schedule the primary election for the Tuesday after Labor Day.

“No one expects the day after Labor Day to increase voter turnout. . . . We should have a secretary of state who does everything he or she can to boost turnout,” he said.

Galvin said that the Sept. 4 date was the best of several bad options caused by conflicts of schedules in September with Jewish holidays and the Sept. 11 anniversary.

When asked about the state’s poor reputation for granting public access to records, one of the secretary’s duties, Galvin said he had historically been bound by a state law that exempted public agencies and officials from disclosing certain records. He said the law was changed in 2017 to improve public access, though he recognized more work to change the law is needed.

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When Zakim argued that he would work to be more transparent and grant greater public access to records, Galvin shot back that many of the appeals his office sees are from Boston city departments that refuse to hand over records.

“If you’re so interested in transparency, you might begin at home,” Galvin said.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com.