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Democratic candidates spar in 5th District debate

October 8, 2013

BOSTON (AP) — Five Democratic candidates hoping to fill Massachusetts’ open 5th Congressional District seat sparred on everything from the government shutdown to gun control Tuesday, agreeing on many issues but highlighting some areas of difference.

Tuesday’s debate, sponsored by New England Cable News, came just a week before the primary in the state’s latest special election.

All five blamed Republicans for the ongoing shutdown of the federal government and threatened default but Belmont state Sen. William Brownsberger was the only candidate to suggest negotiating a deal with the GOP to end the shutdown.

Brownsberger said a possible deal could involve eliminating a tax on medical device manufacturers included in President Barack Obama’s health care law. Many Democratic members oppose the tax.

“All I’m saying is at the end of the day, we all have a responsibility to avoid a default and I’m not sure how that happens,” Brownsberger said, adding that he holds U.S. House Republicans responsible for the shutdown.

The other four Democratic candidates in the debate — Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, Ashland state Sen. Karen Spilka, Melrose state Sen. Katherine Clark, Medford state Rep. Carl Sciortino — all said they support President Barack Obama’s decision not to negotiate with Republicans until the shutdown ends and threat of a default is passed.

“We cannot negotiate with an extortionist,” Clark said. “This is really about Speaker Boehner remaining speaker. It’s not what’s best for the country.”

All five said they said they support stiffer firearms laws including federal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

Spilka said the first priority should be on toughening background checks, which had some support in Congress after last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut but failed to win sufficient support in the Senate.

“We should go back and work on the background checks,” Spilka said. “There is an urgency to this.”

The candidates were also asked about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. Most expressed concern about what they said was an infringement of the privacy rights of ordinary citizens.

“That is fundamentally un-American,” said Sciortino.

One other area Brownsberger appeared to break with his fellow Democrats was on the issue of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. He said the focus should be on how to reduce carbon emissions and Keystone isn’t part of that discussion. The other candidates said they oppose the project.

The five were also asked about whether they would support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which paved the way for a flood of campaign cash from corporations and unions.

Most said they would support such an amendment.

“The Constitution says ‘we the people, not we the corporations,’” Koutoujian said.

Brownsberger, however, said overturning Citizens United could also harm the First Amendment rights of groups like Planned Parenthood.

Two other Democrats — former Lexington School Committee member Martin Long and Stoneham resident Paul John Maisano — are also running for the seat along with three Republicans — Boston attorney Frank Addivinola, Holliston resident Michael Stopa and Framingham veteran Tom Tierney.

They are vying for the seat left vacant by Edward Markey’s election to the U.S. Senate earlier this year. The primary is Oct. 15 and the general election is Dec. 10.

Massachusetts currently has an all-Democratic congressional delegation.

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