METHUEN — The four candidates for the First Essex Senate District seat differentiated themselves on a wide range of issues at a debate here last night.
Similar to recent debates in Haverhill and Newburyport, questions about taxes, the economy and jobs dominated the session. But the candidates also staked out positions on niche issues such as using civilian flagmen instead of police officers for traffic details, whether they would support a casino in the district, and their top ideas for spurring tourism in the region.
The Senate hopefuls also named their favorite current state senator and identified which legislative committees they would like to serve on should they win — possibly providing insight into their priorities should they top the ballot Nov. 6.
Kathleen O’Connor Ives is the Democratic nominee, Shaun Toohey is the Republican candidate and James Kelcourse and Paul Magliocchetti are running as Independents. They are vying for the seat previously held by Methuen Democrat Steve Baddour, who resigned in March to enter private law practice.
About 75 people attended the debate at Merrimack Valley Golf Club in Methuen while a steady drizzle fell outside. The event was sponsored by various chambers of commerce in the district, which includes all or parts of seven cities and towns and stretches from Methuen to the seacoast.
Answering a question from an audience member, Toohey and Kelcourse promised they would never agree to raise taxes. Magliocchetti said he would consider new taxes only after thoroughly scrutinizing the state budget for spending cuts and seeing state agencies reformed and consolidated to “bare-bones” levels. O’Connor Ives said it would be irresponsible for her to dismiss any proposal without first seeing and studying it.
Asked their No. 1 idea for stimulating the stagnant economy, the candidates agreed nothing is more important for the district’s next senator than the economy.
Magliocchetti, a lawyer and member of the Haverhill School Committee, said he would consolidate all the state’s economic development agencies into a single one to give businesses easy access to advice and funding, eliminating confusion and waste, he said. He also touted his plan to create tax-free zones in local downtowns and a graduated sales tax system in which taxes would be lower or higher depending on a community’s proximity to tax-free New Hampshire.
Kelcourse, also a lawyer and Amesbury City Councilor, said he would push for more tax-free holidays and developing incentives to attract emerging industries like solar, wind and medical to the region.
O’Connor Ives, a Newburyport City Councilor, said she prefers to see the state invest in “low-risk” local transportation projects and education, which provide jobs to people in the district.
“I’m not sure tax breaks lead to economic development and jobs,” she said.
Toohey, a mortgage banker and eight-year veteran of the Haverhill School Committee, said he would focus on lowering Massachusetts electricity rates, which are among the highest in the country.
If elected, Toohey said he would like to serve on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.
“As a member of the School Committee for eight years and a self-employed businessman, I look at budgets closely,” Toohey said. “I want the state to look at zero-based budgets and go line by line to make sure every expense is justified.”
Magliocchetti said he wants to be on the Senate’s economic development committee to push his plan to consolidate and improve the many state agencies aimed at helping small business owners.
O’Connor Ives also opted for the economic development committee, with consumer protection and education as her back-ups. As a Democrat, O’Connor Ives said she is the only candidates with a realistic chance of chairing a committee in the Democrat-dominated Senate. Kelcourse said he would prefer economic development or traffic and transportation.
The candidates were asked to give their perspective on the importance of political parties at the Statehouse. Toohey said his election would bring a measure of balance to the Senate, where there are 35 Democrats and just four Republicans. O’Connor Ives said she’s best suited to succeed Baddour, a Democrat, as an effective advocate for the district.
Magliocchetti and Kelcourse agreed it’s time for the district to send an Independent to Beacon Hill to represent people instead of party.
“The system is broke when you have to be in a party to have a chance,” said Magliocchetti, adding he believes he can be an effective liaison between Republicans and Democrats in Boston.
Toohey and O’Connor Ives said they oppose recent efforts to allow communities to use civilian flagmen over police at traffic details. They said they believes motorists are safer with police on those jobs and that using civilians doesn’t save much money anyway.
Magliocchetti said isn’t opposed to flagmen, but wants the decision left to cities and towns. Kelcourse answered the question by saying he supports public safety workers and that he recently voted in favor of pay raise for Amesbury police and firefighters.
“But they have to realize their raises are paid for by taxes,” Kelcourse said of police and firefighters.
On how to spur tourism in the district, O’Connor Ives said she would focus on the Merrimack River , which runs through every community in the district — a response echoed by Kelcourse and Magliocchetti. Toohey said the region needs to do a better job marketing the great attractions already here.
Toohey was the only candidate who said he would like to see a casino in the district, as long as it is approved by the host community — a caveat that is already part of the casino law. The other candidates said they don’t believe there’s a suitable location for a casino in the district. O’Connor Ives said she believes any benefits from a casino in the district would be outweighed by negative impacts to traffic and public safety.
Should they win, the Republican and Independent candidates said Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, is the senator they would most look forward to working with. O’Connor Ives chose state Sen. Katharine Clark, a Wakefield Democrat.
The next First Essex Senate debate is Oct. 22 at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.