By Annie Linskey
March 28 (Bloomberg) -- The two Massachusetts Democrats seeking an open U.S. Senate seat clashed over health care in their first debate ahead of next month’s primary vote.
U.S. Representative Ed Markey, 66, of Malden, said helping to pass President Barack Obama’s signature health law was “the proudest vote of my career.” Turning to his opponent, U.S. Representative Steve Lynch of South Boston, who voted against the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Markey said: “Steve, when that vote came up, you were wrong when you were needed most.”
Lynch, 57, joined 33 Democrats to oppose the measure, while 219 voted in favor. Appearing before a statewide television audience yesterday, Lynch and Markey sought ways to dissociate themselves in the special election campaign that culminates in June. Lynch said the measure was flawed and written to benefit insurance companies that will add millions of customers.
“It was like a hostage situation, where we not only paid the ransom, but we let the insurance companies keep the hostages,” Lynch said.
The exchange was the sharpest in a night that offered Lynch a chance to dislodge Markey from his poll-leading position. The Malden lawmaker topped Lynch, a former ironworker, 35 percent to 24 percent among likely primary voters in a poll released March 26 by Boston University radio station WBUR-FM. Markey grabbed an advantage by jumping into the race first and lining up support from party leaders.
“Both candidates had a good night and both stuck with their campaign strategy,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant with the Dewey Square Group in Boston. “Markey emphasized his record and Lynch emphasized he is with the little guy.”
Marsh said that Markey had the “stronger overall performance” and Lynch “had some great hits.”
Lynch kept a folksy tone and earned laughs from the studio audience on occasion. At one point he accused Markey of bailing out Wall Street banks and leaving taxpayers with the bill.
“It seems like a pattern, where you are siding with the big guys against the little guys,” Lynch said. “What’s up with that?”
Markey stayed more serious -- rarely grinning and occasionally shaking his head. He repeatedly mentioned his endorsements from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a lobbying group based in Washington. Both men support abortion rights, though Lynch came to the position more recently.
At one point, Markey accused Lynch of failing to work with the Massachusetts congressional delegation to include disaster relief funds for the state’s commercial-fishing industry in a larger bill.
Lynch called out Markey for not fighting new, much-reduced federal catch limits, as he has. “The fishermen don’t want disaster relief,” Lynch said. “They want to fish.”
Markey was a state representative when first elected to Congress in 1976, at age 30. Lynch, also a former state legislator, was an ironworkers union president as he made his way through law school at Boston College, Markey’s alma mater.
The winner of the April 30 primary will take on the day’s Republican victor in the June 25 special election. Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown, 53, took himself out of the running last month, leaving Republicans to scramble for a candidate.
The Senate post opened in January when John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, resigned to become U.S. Secretary of State. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, appointed William “Mo” Cowan, his former staff chief, to fill the job on an interim basis.
The campaign is the third for a senate seat representing the Bay State since 2009, when Senator Ted Kennedy’s death in office led to a 2010 special election that Brown won. He lost a bid for a full term to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November.
The 30-minute Markey-Lynch round followed a half-hour debate between three Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the job. Both events took place at WCVB-TV’s studios in Needham, a town about 13 miles (20 kilometers) west of Boston. Bloomberg Radio was among eight broadcasters that sponsored the debate.
The Republicans who debated were former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Michael Sullivan, 58, state Representative Dan Winslow, 54, and Gabriel Gomez, 47, a private-equity investor.
The group made few waves and tried to attack the Democrats who weren’t on the stage with them.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in Massachusetts, while more than half of its registered voters, 52 percent, are unaffiliated and can cast ballots in either party’s primary.
In the WBUR poll, either Democrat beat each Republican by at least 15 percentage points in head-to-head match-ups. The March 19-21 telephone survey of 610 likely voters, half of whom said they were likely to vote as Democrats next month, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.