From the Sentinel & Enterprise
Written by Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG -- The Nov. 6 finish line nearly in sight, incumbent state Sen. Dean Tran and his challenger, Leominster City Councilor Sue Chalifoux Zephir, went toe to toe in a fiery debate Wednesday night where agreement on the facts could be hard to find and political differences were clear.
Both vying to represent the Worcester and Middlesex District, among the few things that Republican Tran and Democrat Chalifoux Zephir agreed on at the Sentinel & Enterprise and Fitchburg Access Television-sponsored debate dealt with vices - legal and otherwise.
Both said they do not support safe injection sites, and when asked by debate moderator, Sentinel & Enterprise City Editor Cliff Clark, whether they would patronize the state's recently legalized casinos and cannabis dispensaries, both said no.
While their stances on issues overlapped on some questions, that was largely where the agreement stopped.
Each candidate referred to the other exclusively as "my opponent." Tran on a few occasions said he secured $29.6 million in funding for the district in the past seven months, an assertion Chalifoux Zephir challenged, saying at one point that Tran plays "fast and loose with the facts."
She said 2 percent of the $29.6 million was included in the annual budget, and the remaining 98 percent was in bond bills whose projects may never be funded, depending on the state's ability to borrow money.
A seemingly innocuous question that asked the candidates to finish the sentence, "In order to create a stable, job-producing, wage-driving economy, North Central Massachusetts businesses need ...," produced testy exchanges between the two.
After first completing the sentence with the word "me," Tran accused Chalifoux Zephir of being in charge of payroll at her husband's company when it was "sued for wage theft," asking, "how can you rely on a person like that for any kind of economic work?"
Chalifoux Zephir turned to look at Tran and issued a forceful denial, saying Tran needs to "check his facts," calling his claim a "lie" and "categorically false," adding that she does not work for her husband's company and was never in charge of payroll.
Both candidates said they would not need to "mend political fences in the region's best interest" because they already have good relationships with state and local lawmakers.
Chalifoux Zephir pointed to her endorsements from five local state representatives and Congressman Jim McGovern as proof, while Tran pointed out two Democrats who endorsed him, Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale and former state Sen. Bob Antonioni.
Chalifoux Zephir said "my Republican opponent has not been endorsed by a single members of the delegation" and Tran called the endorsements she cited "partisan." He claimed she "doesn't get along" with her own colleagues on the City Council, another assertion Chalifoux Zephir denied with the caveat that she "disagreed loudly" with Mayor
Dean Mazzarella over public school funding, saying, "I will fight that fight until I get into the state Senate."
They disagreed on whether the Safe Communities Act is necessary to improve public safety. The proposal would prevent local law enforcement from asking questions about a person's immigration status, keep local law enforcement from collaborating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and prohibit the use of state tax dollars to create a registry based on a protected class like race or ethnicity.
Tran said it is not necessary because it "forbids federal agencies to work collaboratively with local agencies" and "when there's an emergency that occurs we want them to work with our local personnel."
Chalifoux Zephir said the law does not forbid federal agencies from arresting people locally, and that local law enforcement does not have the funding to carry out the duties federal immigration officials want them to, adding that local police must preserve trust with immigrant populations in order to identify criminals.
Chalifoux Zephir supports ballot Question 1, which would limit nurse-patient ratios, and has been publicly critical about UMass Memorial Health Alliance Hospital's plan to close its Burbank Urgent Care Campus and pediatric intensive care unit in Leominster.
Asked to respond to the assertion that Question 1 would lead to more community hospital cutbacks, she said studies haven't returned uniform projections on how much the ballot question would cost. She pointed to another factor straining hospital budgets, too-low insurance reimbursement rates, and said that services are already being reduced.
"That is already happening, so what I would like to do is really look at health care, and take a step back and look at health care in a comprehensive way," she said.
Tran was then asked directly how he will vote on Question 1. He responded by saying the measure would have a "very negative impact on community health centers," cost the state up to $1 billion and siphon nurses away from elder care centers and schools. Pressed by the moderator to answer how he will vote, he did not, saying he wants constituents to decide on the measure for themselves and that his own family doesn't know how he votes.
He also declined to answer, when asked, how he would vote on Question 3, which would keep the state's transgender rights law on the books. "It is up to the people to decide," he said, adding that "if people decide to maintain it as law I will respect that, if the people decide to repeal it that is something the Legislature will have to take up."
Chalifoux Zephir said she will vote yes on Question 3 because "transgender people like any other person or people and should be able to go to public places and feel safe."
The candidates found a sliver of common ground when asked if teacher salaries should be uniform across the state. Tran said "no two school districts are the same" and salaries should be set at the local level, while Chalifoux Zephir said the question should be considered during "comprehensive education reform" efforts but that "it would be really hard to establish uniform teacher salaries."
The question led to a debate over the Fair Share Amendment, a measure that would levy a 4 percent tax on incomes over $1 million. Chalifoux Zephir has long supported the measure, and said she has no problem asking high-income earners, who typically don't pay the full 5 percent state income tax, to support education and infrastructure.
Tran said the amendment would arrive before the Legislature as a graduated income tax, which doesn't work at the federal level, adding that he worked with Sen. Anne Gobi last session to increase the funding to regional school districts.
After previously saying he voted against raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21 because he believes those old enough to serve in the military can choose for themselves whether or not to smoke, Tran was asked whether he would support lowering the age of consumption of alcohol and marijuana to 18. He didn't answer, saying he can't decide unless he had the data on the matter.
Chalifoux Zephir said she would have voted to raise the age for purchasing tobacco, saying vaping is a big issue and teenage brains are "more susceptible to becoming addicted to nicotine," to which Tran responded that teenage smoking is already on the decline.
Asked how the Legislature should support the state's aging population, Chalifoux Zephir said the state must reduce monthly premiums, help people remain in their homes while they age and improve transportation. Tran said the country must built up its workforce so more people are paying into Medicare and Social Security than withdraw from it.
In closing, Tran touted his role helping increasing school funding, and passing two bond bills. He said voters should choose him because they deserve a hardworking and transparent legislator, then took direct aim at Chalifoux Zephir, saying "my opponent wants a title, I want to serve you."
Chalifoux Zephir didn't mention Tran in her closing remarks, instead touting her role as executive director of the Leominster food pantry Ginny's Helping Hand, and saying voters should pick her to advocate for beefed-up vocational training and well-paying jobs. "I want to make sure that everyone here has the same opportunities I had to get a good education, do meaningful work, raise a family."
Chalifoux Zephir's closing statement was cut short on the air because the FATV broadcast ran about a minute over. The full broadcast can be streamed online at FATV.org.