By Fred Thys
Five of the Democratic candidates vying for Sen. Ed Markey's former 5th Congressional District seat faced off in their only televised debate Tuesday night.
State Sen. Karen Spilka, of Ashland, summed it up best: "You have a hard choice. We all sound the same," she said of the liberal field.
But the candidates did go after one another in an effort to distinguish themselves from their rivals.
State Sen. Will Brownsberger, of Belmont, criticized Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian's record on gun control.
"I'm the only candidate sitting here who has a zero every session that I've served in from the NRA," Brownsberger said. "Other candidates have been up from that. Peter actually got himself a B- and voted in favor of a resolution supporting the Supreme Court's decision striking down Washington, D.C.'s efforts to control handguns. So I think that sends a different kind of message to have that kind of record."
"Listen, I'm no friend of the NRA," Koutoujian responded. "I'm no friend of the Gun Owners' Action League. I don't even know why I would get such a good grade from the NRA because I don't remember voting anything that was important to them. They don't like me."
Later, Brownsberger and state Rep. Carl Sciortino, of Medford, disagreed on whether there should be a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend on political campaigns. Brownsberger started explaining why he opposes an amendment when Sciortino jumped in.
"It's wrong, it's oversimplification to say that's the whole problem," Brownsberger said. "We had problems all through all the history of politics in this country."
"Will, you don't think it's even a problem. That's our concern," Sciortino interjected.
"Your problem is, what I won't do is take away the free speech rights of organizations like Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club," Brownsberger replied. "Those are corporations. Let's not forget that."
"That decision overturned 100 years of jurisprudence," Sciortino retorted. "It is damaging to our democracy."
"What you need to do is look at how you're doing it yourself," Brownsberger said. "I'm raising my money from the people of this district."
Brownsberger has raised a greater percentage of contributions from the district than his rivals.
Spilka touted her sponsorship of a bill that would require law enforcement to obtain warrants to access people's telephone records, contacts, location and emails. She took on state Sen. Katherine Clark, of Melrose, for supporting a bill that would expand wiretaps beyond organized crime investigations.
"Katherine has a bill that expands the scope of surveillance," Spilka said. "The ACLU supports my bill. They say her bill poses a grave danger to private safety."
"First of all, I want to say I am a cosponsor with Karen on that electronic privacy and I believe that search warrants are an important constitutional protection," Clark replied. "The bill involving the wiretap statute is about ending gun violence. It removes a provision that requires organized crime. It's what the Supreme Judicial Court has said to the Legislature: This is what we need to update our 1968 statute. That's why the exact same provision is in the governor's gun bill."
Two other Democratic candidates were not invited to the NECN debate: former Lexington School Committee member Martin Long and Stoneham community activist Paul John Maisano. Three Republicans are competing for their party's nomination. Primary day is Oct. 15.