By Shira Schoenberg
From climate change to income inequality, the five Democratic candidates for the 5th District congressional seat showed Thursday night that they have more in common than divides them. While there were some differences between the candidates, on issues such as the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the candidates, in their first in-person debate, agreed on a number of progressive principles.
State Sens. William Brownsberger, Katherine Clark and Karen Spilka, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and State Rep. Carl Sciortino met at a Progressive Voters Forum at Lesley University in Cambridge. The forum was organized by Massachusetts Peace Action, sponsored by eight progressive organizations and moderated by Jordan Berg Powers, deputy director of the liberal advocacy group Mass Alliance.
The similarities were apparent from the first question, on climate change. Sciortino echoed the sentiment of all the candidates when he said, "We have to bring a sense of urgency to this issue right now."
Brownsberger, Clark, Koutoujian and Sciortino all said they support some form of carbon pricing, either a carbon tax or a cap and trade system, in which companies pay for the pollution they emit. "We need to create broad economy-wide incentives to give people incentives to change their behavior, give businesses incentives to change their behavior and make renewables more attractive," Brownsberger said.
All the candidates except Brownsberger said they oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, a pipeline opposed by many environmentalists that would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
All five candidates generally supported the ideas behind a "Budget for All" resolution, a resolution passed by voters in numerous Massachusetts towns urging Congress to invest in education, health care and transportation, end cuts to social programs, raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations and redirect military spending to job creation.
"We cannot cut our way to prosperity, and Budget for All is reflective of those values," Clark said. "It creates jobs, invests in infrastructure and education and addresses the disparity of wealth in this country."
All of the candidates voiced concern about economic inequality and advocated for raising the federal minimum wage. "The highest paid executive is making more than the robber barons of decades ago," Spilka said.
Brownsberger added that he would address poverty by reforming the criminal justice system - repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations and legalizing marijuana.
One area where Brownsberger differed was on the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which allowed companies to make unlimited political expenditures as long as they do not coordinate with a candidate. The court said companies have First Amendment rights to political speech.
Clark, Spilka, Koutoujian and Sciortino would support a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. "The Constitution doesn't say we the corporations, it says we the people," Koutoujian said. "That's exactly who should be enjoying these constitutional rights."
Spilka added, "We can't let people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers literally buy some of these elections."
Brownsberger, however, said the court decision does not address the problem of special interest money influencing politics. He said a constitutional amendment would strip the rights protecting corporations such as Planned Parenthood. "It means the police could waltz into any corporation building and do what they please," Brownsberger said. Brownsberger urged voters to think about the big picture and "what's the downside of curtailing and shaving back the First Amendment."
All the candidates promised to be strong advocates for women's rights. "I don't understand the extraordinary preoccupation of the radical right in attempts to control the reproductive health of women here in our country. I find it quite bizarre," Spilka said.
Koutoujian said he had been "fighting for women's issues for decades" - from starting a white ribbon campaign at the State House for men to stand united against domestic violence to fighting to require emergency rooms in all hospitals, regardless of religious affiliation, to provide emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault.
There were some differences on foreign policy.
Sciortino broke with his opponents as the only one to oppose a recent congressional vote increasing sanctions on Iran. Sciortino talked about the United States's lengthy involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and said, "I'm not someone who will say I trust you when they say we need to rattle the cages faster and harder in military conflicts around the world." He cited the State Department in saying additional sanctions are not in the U.S.'s international interest.
The other candidates said sanctions should be maintained to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. "Allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons is a threat to national security and our greatest ally in the Middle East, Israel," Clark said. "I think sanctions are an important part of diplomatic efforts to contain that."
When Powers asked whether the candidates would speak out against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Sciortino was the only candidate to criticize the settlements. Sciortino called the settlements a "barrier to the peace process" and said the U.S. should critique them in a way that is "respectful of important conversations being had" to bring both sides to the negotiating table.
Sciortino, Koutoujian, Spilka and Clark stressed the need for a two-state solution. Clark said a solution requires the recognition of Israel, a cessation of violence, resolution of the status of Jerusalem and economic viability for the Palestinians. "When we negotiate the border, we will resolve this vexing issue of the settlements," Clark said.
Spilka, who has relatives in Israel, and Brownsberger both stressed the difficulty Israel faces as its enemies shoot rockets into the country. "Until that settles down, folks stop throwing rockets, Hamas and Hezbollah settle down, the peace process isn't going to get to closure," Brownsberger said.
All the candidates oppose the use of U.S. military force in Syria. Koutoujian and Spilka spoke in personal terms, noting that their families had been affected by genocide -- Koutoujian's in the Armenian genocide and Spilka's in the Holocaust.
Koutoujian said Syrian President Bashar Assad should be prosecuted as a war criminal in the Hague, and the U.S. should seek opportunities to provide refugee visas and asylum and provide humanitarian aid to Syrians.
The five Democrats, along with Martin Long, a former Lexington School Committee member, and Stoneham resident Paul Maisano, are competing for the congressional seat that was vacated when Democrat Edward Markey was elected to the U.S. Senate. The primary will be Oct. 15 and the general election Dec. 10.
Harvard physicist Mike Stopa, attorney Frank Addivinola and veteran Tom Tierney are running as Republicans.