NEEDHAM — Trailing in the polls, Democratic nominee Jay Gonzalez went on the offense against Governor Charlie Baker in a televised debate Thursday, charging the Republican with turning his back on Massachusetts values by “blindly supporting” the state GOP ticket and framing Baker as a status quo leader at a time that cries out for bold action.
Baker fought back, highlighting his record of standing up to President Trump, underscoring his bipartisan accomplishments, and arguing his opponent’s plans to raise taxes are “dishonest” and don’t even come close to paying for Gonzalez’s pricey transportation and education agenda.
It was the last of three showdowns in the gubernatorial debate season, a fiery finish with the candidates posing questions to each other and engaging in a series of terse exchanges.
And while the high-stakes forum was anchored in local issues, the roiled national political climate hung over the debate, which aired on WCVB-TV (Channel 5). Both candidates were asked to describe the president in three words.
“Hateful. Racist. Un-American,” Gonzalez said.
“Outrageous. Disgraceful. And a divider,” Baker said.
Trying to tie Baker, who state polls have found is popular, to the broader GOP, which state polls have found is not, was at the core of Gonzalez’s most persistent attacks.
Gonzalez knocked Baker for his endorsement of GOP attorney general nominee Jay McMahon, a Trump-aligned candidate who wants to roll back major Massachusetts gun control measures and supports Trump’s travel ban.
“Why do you think he would be a better attorney general than Maura Healey?” Gonzalez asked the incumbent.
Baker said he led the charge on banning bump stocks, which effectively convert semiautomatic guns into automatic weapons; worked with the Democratic-controlled Legislature to give courts the authority to strip weapons from people who have been identified by their families as a danger to themselves or others; and expressed pride that a major gun control advocacy group endorsed him.
Gonzalez, cutting off one of the journalists asking questions at the debate, posed the same query to Baker again.
The governor replied that he’s worked closely with Healey. “But I said months ago I was going to support the ticket, and I’m going to live up to my commitment on that,” he said.
“By the way,” Baker said later in the exchange, “this isn’t a race for attorney general. It’s not a race for the US Senate. It’s a race for governor. And I’ll put my track record on these issues up against anybody.”
Gonzalez offered his analysis for voters watching at home.
“Best I can tell from his answers, he’s blindly supporting the Republican ticket, no matter what the consequences,” Gonzalez said.
Baker underscored his longtime support for abortion rights and noted he signed the state’s transgender public accommodations law and opposes repealing it. Speaking afterward to reporters, he added that his support for the ticket was an effort to avoid appearing like he “was taking sides. But obviously there are many issues on which I disagree with people.”
Baker, for his part, attacked Gonzalez as misleading the people of Massachusetts by promising huge infrastructure and education projects without having a plan to pay for all of them.
“It’s dishonest to stand here, in front of the voters, say you’re going to be bold, and then talk about initiatives that cost billions of dollars that you don’t have the dollars to pay for,” Baker said.
Gonzalez pushed back, saying: “I have a specific plan to raise the money we need to do the things that I want to do that will cost more money.”
Gonzalez has proposed taxing Harvard and the state’s other richest universities and colleges to the collective tune of a billion dollars each year. He’s also said he’d press for a so-called millionaires tax that, if approved, would bring in an estimated $2 billion annually — but it would take at least four years to get it on the books.
Gonzalez defended his revenue plans, telling reporters afterward that even if they didn’t cover every single one [of his spending proposals] — which he thinks they will — “it is more than zero, which is what he is offering.”
During the one-hour forum, the topics ranged from gas pipelines to family traditions, from bucket lists to climate change, and from repairing the MBTA to each candidate’s political hero. (Gonzalez named former governor Deval Patrick; Baker chose Abraham Lincoln.)
Several minutes of the debate were devoted to issues of the environment and climate change during which Baker hailed the state’s massive wind procurement as a nation-leading effort.
“Our administration is the one that created an off-shore wind industry on the East Coast of the United States,” Baker said. “The fastest way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels is to create affordable alternatives, and we’ve moved that ball way down the field.”
Asked whether a tax on carbon dioxide emissions makes sense in Massachusetts, Gonzalez said it does. “This is one area, among many, where I’m going to provide the bold leadership we need that we don’t have right now,” Gonzalez said, adding that he would accelerate the state’s transition to renewable energy and do everything in his power to stop the expansion of natural gas pipeline infrastructure.
Both said they consider spurring the state’s housing stock to be a major priority, and the topic offered a fertile political battleground.
After Gonzalez promised to beef up capital investments and push regulatory reform if elected, Baker — nodding to Gonzalez’s three years as Patrick’s budget chief — asked him directly: “Well, how come you didn’t do that when you were [budget] secretary?”
“It wasn’t my job,” Gonzalez said, arguing he wasn’t in charge of housing.
Baker returned the volley, charging that “during your term in office, nobody did anything to solve this problem” and the governor pointed to his own efforts to push the Legislature to act on a still-pending housing bill.
“You keep wanting to talk about [the] Deval Patrick administration,” Gonzalez later said. “I haven’t heard you give a single proposal for what you’re going to do as governor in the next four years.”
Perhaps the best encapsulation of the state of the race — where a poll released Thursday found Gonzalez down by 43 points — came at the end of the forum.
Both candidates were asked to describe their opponent in three words.
“Status quo governor,” Gonzalez said of Baker.
“Smart, ambitious, and public servant,” Baker said of Gonzalez.
Election Day is Tuesday.
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com