Political Football Kicks Off at Harvard U

Kick off time: 7:00 p.m. September 7, 2006.

Special to capecodtoday by Libby Hughes

Field football? No. Political football Massachusetts style? Yes.

Optional equipment consisted of helmets, face guards, and tongue guards. Skilled blocking, passing, foul calls, and touchdowns were all part of the verbal strategy.

The debate at Harvard was televised on several Boston channels. Most pundits said Reilly lost ground by attacking Gabrieli while Patrick appeared statesman-like.

Where? At the Kennedy School of Governmentâ??s John F. Kennedy Forum, sponsored by Harvardâ??s Institute of Politics. The fever of excitement was running high because the Forum represents the heart of political and intellectual stimulation on the banks of the Charles River and minutes away from Harvard Square and the quads at Harvard University. It kicked off the political season, pointing to the primaries on Sept. 19.

The players? All Democratic wannabes for the governorship of Massachusetts. They are Chris Gabrieli, Deval Patrick, and Tom Reilly. Former Governor of New Hampshire and Director of the Institute of Politics, Jeanne Shaheen presided as moderator.

Pre-debate Excitement

Before the seven oâ??clock deadline, there were things you didnâ??t see or hear on your television screens. Outside ten trucks and vans were parked with television dishes and equipment from the local studios. The Forum was packed by 6:15 p.m. The pitch of noise was high, rising in the hollow center of the three-story Harvard facility. The bleachers on the second floor were full. Students were hanging over the railings and pressed against the back walls. Television cameras were everywhere and so were police. Ticket holders and special guests were seated on white folding chairs on the first floor. People were well-dressed on this warm night. The press was huddled across the back center on a carpeted riser. To get an unobstructed view, this reporter sat on the ledge of a wall with other reporters, pecking away at their computers or scratching wildly in their notebooks.

Do Appearances Matter?

When the three candidates appeared, they stood behind their podiums and were fitted with microphones. The tall Chris Gabrieli towered over his two opponents. He seemed relaxed, understated, confident, and waved to friends in the audience. Tom Reilly was in the middle. Looking like Johnny Carson, Reilly was all businessâ??immersed in his notes and private thoughts. Deval Patrick stood on the end in quiet assurance. After all, he was on home turf as a Harvard alum.

Then, there was a hush two minutes before the hour long debate. The local Channel 5 TV station made its introduction. Former Governor Jeanne Shaheen opened the debate with her introductions of the panel of three press questioners. The state political season was launched and the gauntlet dropped.

The Age Old Question of Reducing Taxes

Bob Oakes flung out the first question about getting state income tax down from 5.3% to 5%. Gabrieli chided the other two for promising the cuts too soon. He said it would take at least a year to do it. He made no promises, but said it had to get done. Reilly immediately attacked Gabrieli for not revealing his income publicly. Patrick injected some humor about property taxes.

The Opening was rough and tumble

Janet Wu confronted Reilly with being too indecisive and with low management skills. The tone of the debate began to sour as personal attacks surfaced. Reilly was attacked for the financial difficulties of Marie St. Fleur, his possible running mate. Words like â??disappointed in youâ? and youâ??re not to be â??trustedâ? raised the emotion sand exchanges. The three could feel the audience stiffen and they returned to a more gentlemanly posture.

Andy Hiller referred Mr. Patrick to the $750 million that Romney provided for social programs, wages, and Medicare. Patrick brushed aside public monies and said that leadership was needed. Reilly had to defend himself on prosecuting Big Dig chicanery. He replied, â??I wonâ??t make this part of politics, but they will be made accountable.â? The other candidates chimed in their desire to make those involved in Big Dig trickery accountable.

Patrick Liberal or Conservative?

Bob Oakes challenged Mr. Patrick with the label of â??Liberalâ? being pinned to him. â??Iâ??ve been called everything, except a child of God!â? A great burst of laughter from the audience. Patrick pointed to his experience in government (Clinton Administration), business ((General Counsel to the Coca Cola Company) and with non-profits, giving him a wide range of experience. He said there was a place for both liberals and conservatives and they were both right. Gabrieli reinforced this idea by saying that we all had to come together for the good of the state.

Half Time

The second half of the program was guided by Governor Shaheen and her questions. She invited them to mix it up. Gabrieli said he knew how to create jobs and wanted to invest in science and technology for stem cell research and alternative sources of energy. He planned to ask Harvard and M.I.T. to put up 2% of the money. Patrick wanted to bring more companies to Massachusetts. He complimented Gabrieli for his taking private monies for public investment. Patrick suggested getting the three big colleges to cooperate and contribute.

What about 9/11 and Katrina?

Before their final statements, Shaheen asked them about the after effects of 9/11 and Katrina. They all expressed the need for prevention and protection. Patrick jabbed President Bush for just flying over the Katrina devastation in the opening days. â??Get out of the plane and walk around,â? he said.

Final Words

Final statements: Patrick warned against inaction. He reiterated his experience in many areas, giving him the qualities to lead afresh and with hope rather â??the same old, same old.â? Reillyâ??s purpose was to protect our streets and our children. He wants to change direction, regarding schools and taxes. Gabrieli repeated his firsthand experience with getting results. He wants the best ideas for Massachusetts,
regardless of political affiliation.

The debate was over. There were handshakes all around. Reporters stormed the platform and shoved microphones around each candidateâ??s mouth. They peppered the debaters with questions.

Positions on Cape Wind

Afterwards, this reporter sought their opinions on the Cape Wind issue. Mr. Reilly said, â??I believe in protecting Nantucket sound, but I believe in renewable energy resources.â? Mr. Deval Patrick nodded his head. â??I am in favor of Cape Wind, but it is very complicated.â?  Mr. Gabrieli said, â??I support the Cape Wind project, although I do have some questions about the leasing of land. I want to make this project a reality if we can get a good deal for the taxpayers, and I believe I can."

And so, the buzz was over. People left and a few lingered around the candidates with questions. Outside, the TV trucks were disassembling their equipment and heading back to their studios.

The first debate was fairly tame and articulate. At the end, the applause for Patrick and Reilly was about even. Applause for Gabrieli was louder and more vocal.

Who won? Who scored? Who made a real touchdown? Itâ??s in the eye of the viewer. Perhaps Gabrieli and Patrick were tied for first place, but who knows. Two more debates and November will decide.

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