Dispatch from the Bloody Final Debate in the 26th Middlesex: Toomey vs. Connolly vs. Vasconelos

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A few weeks ago, I received an angry phone call from Cambridge and Somerville State Rep Tim Toomey's campaign manager. It was both deserved and expected; the week before, I'd published a deep and positive profile of Mike Connolly, who's running as a progressive independent candidate in the 26th Middlesex district. Toomey often runs unopposed, and here I was informing voters about an energetic college athlete turned tech attorney who wants to extract big money from politics. I'd be pissed at me too.

The campaign manager, who attacked my publication's credibility, was understandably angry with my not calling them for comment. I'm sure that Toomey would have loved to throw a jab in these pages, or defend his dual role as a Cambridge city councilor and state rep (he says that he's “proud” of holding two offices). But I'm not a Globe reporter, striving for some impossible objective standard. I'm a feature writer who's intrigued by Connolly, whose odds of unseating Toomey – with or without raising tens of thousands of dollars, and with or without Phoenix coverage – are bleak considering how past challengers have fared.

Nevertheless, I promised Toomey's people that I'd check the second of their two debates. I'm glad that I did, too, because the race for the 26th is one of the most exciting spats anywhere. Toomey is absolutely the sort of rank-and-file Beacon Hill creature I deplore – pro-casino, pro-“three-strikes” – but he's a popular guy and for good reason. Two decades of pushing a mostly responsible left-leaning agenda has earned him faithful allies from the immigrant community to prominent LGBT groups. And now, he's met a formidable left-wing match in Connolly, an independent progressive who was active at Occupy Boston, as well as in the young Republican nominee, Thomas Vasconelos.

Though Tuesday's United States Senate debate was cancelled, the Toomey-Connolly-Vasconelos showdown – which was scheduled for the exact same time as the Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren hunger game – went forward as planned. For anybody who was disappointed by nature's impact on statewide politics, the show at Cambridge Community Television could have served as a phenomenal consolation. As moderator Joe Lynch of “Greater Somerville” noted at the outset, this anomalous triumvirate already made history when there was literally an earthquake in the heat of their first debate.

The opening statements were boilerplate across the board: Connolly talked about growing up and out of public housing projects, and reached out to bleeding hearts: “No matter how hard we work, it always seems like the political system is stacked against us.” Toomey spoke about how “public service is [his] life's work,” and how his native neighborhood of East Cambridge “was multicultural before anybody knew what multicultural was.” The rep also flaunted his southpaw laurels: “Anyone who tells you that I'm not a progressive leader isn't being honest.” The last opener, Vasconelos, dipped into his highlight reel, reminding debate viewers that, in the prior face-off, neither of his opponents knew how much debt the commonwealth was in.

And then they got right into it, responding to a question about “clean elections.” Specifically, Connolly railed Toomey for his part in the 2003 repeal of the state's Clean Elections Law, which 58 percent of voters statewide passed in a 1999 ballot measure. Always selling his “no money” tagline, Connolly used that stain on Toomey's record to juxtapose his own campaign, which he twice called a “grassroots, low-budget affair.”

In response, Toomey said that clean elections were fully funded in 1999 and 2000. That's true, though the rep neglected to mention the ruthless battle against campaign finance reform that his colleagues fought all the way to the state's highest court, or the more than half-a-million dollars that banks and insurance companies spent to gut clean elections. Toomey also claimed that he personally voted to repeal the law because it was handcuffed to the entire budget. Thirty-seven of his colleagues, however, disagreed, and instead followed the binding will of voters.

The mood remained tense as the candidates moved on to discuss the McCarthy overpass section of McGrath Highway in Somerville, which is in awful disrepair. Connolly dished his argument, though not so compellingly, that legislators could and should have acted to expedite an immediate overhaul. Responding, Toomey led viewers through the bureaucratic labyrinth involved with getting such a project done. Overall, the incumbent's view on the issue came off similar to his stance on medical marijuana, which would come up later on – sure, it's urgent, but it will get done when it gets done (on pot, Toomey wants to further consult law enforcement officials like Middlesex district attorney Gerry Leone, who thinks that an ounce of weed yields 1,000 joints).

Moving on, Lynch asked all three candidates to address the sequential indictments of House speakers Charlie Flaherty, Thomas Finneran, and Sal DiMasi – all of whom Toomey voted into the top leadership spot. Answering as if he were in a high school history class, Vasconelos fumbled in his attempt to list the disgraced pols and their offenses – even though nobody asked him to try. Toomey ran with the only angle that he possibly could – that those guys betrayed his trust, and that he saw none of it coming. That despite his sending DiMasi back to the speaker's chair just weeks before he was indicted, even as dark cloud hovered over Beacon Hill.

All this, of course, was just foreplay for the coming scrum. As he did in their first duel, Toomey dug into Connolly's pledge to raise no money. “We don't know who's financing your campaign,” said Toomey, referring to the roughly $4000 that Connolly has personally given. Along with Vasconelos, the incumbent called his opponent's campaign a “gimmick,” and also argued that the $630 worth of in-kind donations that Connolly has accepted negates his promise. Twisting the knife, Toomey also compared the independent candidate to the Wizard of Oz, and threw a veiled punch alluding to Connolly's employment with a Hewlett Packard-owned company (which is a boggling attack line considering that HP employs people in Cambridge).

If my profile favored Connolly, then other local media is making up for it. Moderator Lynch, who I doubt has bad intentions, helped gang up on the independent candidate about his in-kind donations, and even cracked a joke at Connolly's expense during the debate. Then there's the Cambridge Chronicle, which endorsed Toomey the day after. On top of all that there's Vasconelos, who kissed Toomey's ass throughout the evening. Given a chance to ask one final question to one or both of his opponents, the Republican went so far as to spare the incumbent and aim straight at Connolly.

The former Duke football lineman defended himself well, and even delivered substance on a range of local issues. Still, Connolly's debate performance was hardly stellar – his opening was stiff, he dropped an awkward Rosa Parks analogy, and, finally, he used his final question to ask Toomey about the rep's pro-life stance, which has little to do with his role as a state lawmaker. Those whiffs, however, don't speak to the big question at hand – whether the 26th would be better off with an optimistic rookie like Connolly, or with an entrenched Beacon Hill vet like Toomey. That's another issue altogether, and one that voters in the district should consider. As for me, I'm happy to confirm my hunch that “No Money” Mike is a giant breath of fresh air who deserves every bit of attention that's been paid to him.

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