WATERTOWN — In their first formal event all on one stage, the seven Democrats vying to succeed Edward J. Markey in Congress, together conveyed a clear message to an audience at Watertown Middle School on Tuesday: Their positions on many issues are liberal and they are very polite.
At the cordial, policy-heavy forum that sometimes delved into granular, wonkish detail, each candidate worked to softly differentiate himself or herself from the others on the crowded stage, but none used sharp words or personal attacks in the process.
The almost two-hour event saw the candidates address issues from the environment to Syria to revelations about National Security Agency surveillance to entitlement reform.
Despite the low-key vibe, two issues elicited particularly passionate responses from candidates: the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and gun control.
The ruling on Citizens United, which allowed for unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions to support or oppose candidates in elections, was one of the few areas of light disagreement during the forum, which was sponsored by the Belmont and Watertown Democratic town committees.
Most of the candidates voiced strong support for a constitutional amendment to undo the controversial 2010 decision by the high court.
“I think Citizens United has the potential to unravel our very democracy,” said state Senator Katherine Clark of Melrose. “Corporations are not people and we have to make sure that is reflected in the Constitution of our country.”
State Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland called the ruling a “terrible decision” that should be overturned.
“I think it’s really critical that we don’t give up on a constitutional amendment,” said state Representative Carl M. Sciortino of Medford.
But state Senator Will Brownsberger, who said he does not accept contributions from political action committees or lobbyists, took a different view.
“The fundamental problem of American politics did not start with Citizens United,” he said. It “started with who we elected and what we expect of them.”
He framed “the call for the reversal of Citizens United [as] something that serves to distract.”
“I respectfully disagree with Will,” Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said. “The fact is these are unregulated, unlimited, non-transparent funds that are flowing into elections.”
“The Constitution says ‘We the people,’ not ‘We the corporations,’ ” he said.
Candidates staked out similar positions on gun control, with many voicing support for measures such as universal background checks.
Koutoujian and Clark both were particularly animated on the issue.
“You know, we’re losing 56 children a week to gun violence,” Koutoujian said, adding that gun control legislation would be a top priority for him in Congress.
“We can beat the NRA,” Clark said.
The forum, held five weeks before the Oct. 15 special primary election, was moderated by George Bachrach, a former state senator.
Given the number of hopefuls and the limits of time, Bachrach sometimes politely pushed candidates to finish their thoughts.
As Martin Long, an Arlington author, was expounding on his support for single-payer health care, Bachrach moved to let another candidate speak.
“OK,” he interjected.
“I’ve got lots more to say,” Long replied.
“It’s a large table,” Bachrach said.
Long, one of two candidates who is not a current elected official, repeatedly worked to emphasize he was different than most of his opponents, framing himself as “a candidate of ideas.”
“I am not a professional politician looking for promotion,” he said toward the end of the forum, perhaps the most potent attack, indirect though it was, of the evening.
Also at the event was Stoneham resident Paul John Maisano, who works in the construction industry, though he spoke less than his six opponents.
“I bring a different perspective to this room. I bring a perspective from the streets, from people who are out there hustling every single day,” he said.
The mostly suburban Fifth District, which runs from Winthrop to Woburn to Southborough to Holliston, is heavily Democratic so the winner of the party’s primary will be the favorite in the Dec. 10 special general election.
There are three Republicans running for their party’s nomination: actuary Tom Tierney of Framingham, Harvard nanophysics researcher Mike Stopa of Holliston, and businessman and lawyer Frank J. Addivinola Jr. of Boston.
The seat became vacant after Markey was elected to the US Senate in June. Markey succeeded John F. Kerry, who became Secretary of State.
The media push begins
In a sign the race for the Fifth District seat is heating up, Spilka on Wednesday began an Internet ad campaign promoting a video that portrays her as a fighter for the average person in the face of big business.
Spilka campaign manager Eric Hyers said the new effort, the campaign’s first paid media push, is backed by at least $10,000 on targeted websites.
The one-minute video tells the story of John Crowley, who lost his wife, Jenny, to breast cancer soon after she gave birth to their child.
“Our life insurance company refused to pay,” he says, speaking to the camera. A graphic in the video explains the insurer “exploited a loophole in Massachusetts law to deny payment.”
Crowley says he asked Spilka for help. Spilka, speaking to the camera, says, “I fought the life insurance companies.”
“We passed the law, we changed the law,” she says. “And no family will ever have to go through what John’s family suffered.”
The video had been released earlier this month to supporters.
A face on bureaucracy
After visiting a Cambridge Head Start location, Clark decried sequestration, the automatic cuts in federal spending that have led to reductions in funding for some social service programs.
“The most startling thing about our visit today is: There were no children there,” she said in an interview on Tuesday. Because of cuts in funding from Washington D.C., the location had to open two weeks late, had 30 fewer slots for kids and had to lay off workers, Clark said.
“Today was really seeing how dramatic these cuts are,” she added.
Later at the Watertown forum, she discussed the issue and said the budget process in Congress was not working.
“We have to bring good fiscal stewardship back to the US House and back to Congress,” she said. “It is a system that is broken.”
Students ask questions
About 70 people, mostly students, filled a Harvard University auditorium on Monday night, and asked questions of five of the Democratic candidates vying for the Fifth District seat.
The event, organized by the Harvard College Democrats and cordial in tone, was attended by Brownsberger, Clark, Koutoujian, Long, and Sciortino.
After a student asked a question, each candidate stood and gave a short response.
They addressed issues from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to the potential of US military action in Syria as students leaned in attentively, took notes, and snapped pictures with smartphones.
Maisano and Spilka did not attend the event. A Spilka spokesman said she had a prior campaign commitment in Sherborn, a part of the Fifth District. An aide attended the event and spoke on her behalf.
After the question-and-answer portion concluded at about 9 p.m., candidates mingled with students as campaigns staffers handed out literature and signed up volunteers.
The president of the Harvard College Democrats, Simon Thompson, moderated the forum. He said the event had been planned as an informal meet-and-greet, but morphed into a larger forum because of high interest from students and the imminence of the Oct. 15 special primary election.
Many students interviewed afterward said they hadn’t settled on a candidate, but liked that they got to hear from so many of them.
Alex Wirth, a Harvard student who asked a question about Markey’s vote on the resolution to authorize the use of force against Syria, said he was pleased with how thoughtful all of the candidates were in their responses.
“I think they all gave informative answers,” he said, adding that the exchange offered a “fascinating insight” into broader foreign policies issues.
Harvard freshman Tyler Parker, a self-described “moderate” Democrat from Florida, said he “felt like Carl Sciortino is probably the strongest candidate.” But the 18-year-old liked others as well.
Taylor J. Barnard, a Tufts University senior and the president of College Democrats of America, was also in the audience Monday night. A registered voter in the district, he said he was excited with the crop of candidates.
“I honestly don’t think we can go wrong,” he said.Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.