WITH LESS THAN three weeks until the election, Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl traded a few jabs but otherwise engaged in fairly low-key debate in their race for governor.
Diehl, a conservative Republican former state representative who is trailing badly in the polls, tried to tie Healey, the state’s two-term Democratic attorney general, to high energy costs.
Healey said Diehl can’t be trusted to support women’s access to abortion.
But on a range of other issues, including housing, the MBTA, and higher education, the televised face-off turned drab, with candidates offering bromide-filled answers that generally came without clear policy prescriptions.
The debate, cosponsored by WCVB-TV, WBUR, the Boston Globe, and Univision, was the last chance for voters to size up the candidates side by side before the November 8 election.
But nothing in Thursday night’s hourlong encounter seemed likely to shift the dynamics of race that many think Healey already has in the bag.
She has held a commanding lead throughout the race. A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll released on Tuesday had Healey with support of 56 percent of likely voters to 33 percent for Diehl. A MassINC Polling Group survey released Thursday morning showed Healey with an even wider 53-23 lead.
Diehl repeatedly attacked Healey in Thursday’s encounter for blocking two proposed natural gas pipelines into the state, a move that he said has contributed to soaring energy costs.
Healey countered that her actions have actually saved residents “billions of dollars,” because the gas companies wanted ratepayers to underwrite the cost of the pipelines. “I said, no, if you’re going to build a pipeline, have your investors pay,” she said. “They chose not to.”
Healey said global factors are the biggest driver of the spike in energy costs. “There’s war on in Russia and Ukraine. That is not Massachusetts’ fault,” she said.
Asked whether he would try to block Massachusetts doctors from providing abortion services and abortion pills to those coming here from states where those are illegal, Diehl, an abortion opponent, said he’ll enforce the laws of the state.
Diehl referenced the supermajorities enjoyed by Democrats in the House and Senate, saying there is no path for him to change the state’s abortion laws. “I know it’s Halloween. Stop scaring people about abortion,” he said to Healey.
Healey, who has sought to capitalize in the race on broad public support for abortion rights, said voters shouldn’t trust Diehl’s claim.
“This is a real distinction in the race. My opponent celebrated when Roe was overturned,” she said of the Supreme Court decision overturning the right to abortion. “He does not support a woman’s access to abortion.”
Healey, who has heaped praise on outgoing Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and often seems to be channeling the moderate message that has carried him to sustained popularity, continued that tack when it came to economic issues.
Asked what her focus would be on economic issues amid rising inflation, she said, “cut taxes, cut taxes.” Healey said wants to see the tax rebate checks go out to residents that were triggered by 1986 law. She also voiced support for a tax package Baker has pushed that would provide a set of credits or cuts for residents across the income spectrum.
Diehl zinged her for talking about tax cuts while also supporting Question 1, the ballot question that would raise taxes on annual income over $1 million.
When asked if they could envision a scenario under which they would call for new taxes as governor, Healey “I’m not going to commit to particular pledges.”
Diehl said he could not imagine raising taxes. “I don’t think the state is ever going to be in a position where we need to raise taxes over the time I’ll be in office,” he said.
Both candidates decried the high cost of housing, but neither offered a significant new approach to addressing the problem.
On the trouble-plagued MBTA, Healey said it’s crucial to get the system on track. “We don’t have a functioning economy unless we have a functioning public transit system,” she said. But she did not point to specific steps to get it there.
Diehl suggested reviving the Fiscal Management and Control Board that was in place for several years after the system’s 2015 meltdown as one approach. He then tossed out another idea seemingly out of nowhere, suggesting that perhaps Massport could take over operation of the T. Massport is a “cash cow when it comes to revenue,” he said. “Why not have them potentially look at the MBTA as an added component to what they do.”
A few sparks flew at the outset of the debate when the candidates were asked if they would accept the results of their contest for the state’s top office.
“Absolutely,” said Healey. But she quickly pivoted and called Diehl an “election denier,” saying he went on a right-wing radio station” the day after their previous event and repeated previous claims he has made about the 2020 presidential election being “rigged.”
Diehl, who co-chaired Donald Trump’s Massachusetts campaign, said he would accept the results of next month’s governor’s election. As for the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential race, an issue on which he has gone back on forth, Diehl said, “I understand Joe Biden was certified and is our president.”