From Sentinel & Enterprise
By Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG -- There might not be a formal debate this election cycle between Republican incumbent state Sen. Dean Tran and Democratic challenger Susan Chalifoux Zephir, but it doesn't mean there won't be a war of words.
On Thursday, Tran fired several social media salvos at his political rival and the Sentinel & Enterprise, the same day a front-page story reported the freshman senator had refused an Oct. 24 invitation to participate in a one-on-one newspaper-sponsored debate with Chalifoux Zephir.
In the post, Tran touted his "incredible achievements" for the district since taking office in January and accused Chalifoux Zephir of running an "extremely dirty and deceitful campaign" during the special election to replace Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan last year.
Tran also wrote in the post: "our local paper fell for their latest stunt."
He added, "The residents should be very suspicious of a candidate who employs political stunts for publicity and the media that sensationalizes this kind of behavior."
John Nadeau, Tran's communications director, said the posted statement was prepared by the senator and members of his staff and re-election campaign.
Asked by a reporter to elaborate on his challenger's "political stunts," Tran pointed to a statement Chalifoux Zephir made at an Aug. 29 press conference held in front of UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital about its proposal to eliminate three health-care services at the Leominster campus and the closure of the urgent-care unit at Burbank Hospital in Fitchburg.
Chalifoux Zephir told a Sentinel & Enterprise reporter during the press conference that she was going to meet with the hospital's vice president of government and community relations, James Leary. She said she saw the meeting as opportunity to discuss impending service reductions.
Tran, who said he was not invited to the press conference, said that in her statement Chalifoux Zephir implied that Leary was in some way involved with organizing the event.
"The insinuation that one of the hospital's executives took part in the planning of the protest is inaccurate," he said.
Chalifoux Zephir denied implying Leary had a hand in organizing the press conference, saying: "Absolutely not, absolutely not, I would never have implied that because that is actually untrue."
She said the press conference, which was called by her, Leominster state Rep. Natalie Higgins and Fitchburg City Council President Michael Kushmerek, "was about as far from a stunt that you can imagine."
"It's not a stunt, I am responding to patients who are my constituents who have real-life concerns about the closure of those services," she said, adding that she's attended other meetings on the reduction of services by the hospital.
As to the charge that Chalifoux Zephir ran an "extremely dirty and deceitful campaign" in 2017, Tran pointed to accusations from state Democrats that he likened transgender people to "sexual predators."
The controversy stemmed from Tran's appearance last year in a televised debate forum when he said he feared "sexual predators" would somehow take advantage of state law that allows transgender people to use public accommodations that match their gender identity.
A few days later, the Massachusetts Democratic Party issued a statement accusing Tran of comparing "members of the transgender community with sexual predators."
Tran at the time, and again on Thursday, denied equating transgender people with sexual predators, and on Thursday reiterated that his then-campaign manager is transgender.
Chalifoux Zephir said the statement was released by the state Democratic party, not by her campaign for state Senate. (At the time, a Sentinel & Enterprise editorial condemned the Democratic Party's misleading statement and chastised Chalifoux Zephir for not clearing the air.)
But Chalifoux Zephir also pointed to a supposed Republican cheap shot -- a December advertisement taken out by the state Republican Party that claimed she "could not be trusted to help working families" because her husband was one of four defendants who paid $1.4 million in back wages to employees after a 2016 Consent Judgment and Order with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The sexual predator equivalency "did not come from my campaign, and you don't hear me complaining about the stuff his supporters say about me," Chalifoux Zephir said.
In his Thursday morning post, Tran reiterated that he had already agreed to "participate in two debate/forums before a third debate was suggested by the Sentinel & Enterprise."
When asked how the Sentinel & Enterprise "sensationalized" Chalifoux Zephir's alleged "stunts," Tran said the paper failed to cross-check what he viewed as his rival's insinuation that Leary was involved in the "protest."
As to his rejecting the newspaper's debate invitation, Tran said he agreed to appear in what organizer Kevin Cormier termed a "debate forum" on FLAP-TV on Oct. 11.
Cormier said that before the debate, he will tell the candidates "the general topics they can expect to asked about" but not a list of questions.
Tran will also participate in an Oct. 3 forum at Leominster High School, where questions that will be posed to the candidates will be provided to them in advance.
Tran said the Sentinel & Enterprise did not tell his campaign what the format of the debate would be before he declined the invitation.
"We don't know what kind of behavior that will take place in such a forum," said Tran in a telephone interview with a reporter. He added that he does believe the newspaper would provide an impartial forum for candidates to debate their platforms.
The Sentinel & Enterprise, with its sister newspaper The Sun of Lowell, co-sponsored two 3rd Congressional District debates for 10 Democratic candidates at Fitchburg State University and Devens Commons, respectively, and participated in at least six other congressional debates throughout the district.
"I don't know what Mr. Tran is alluding to (about impartiality) because we have never heard anything but positive responses from the candidates, the public and our debate partners, which includes Fitchburg State University," said Jim Campanini, the regional editor of both newspapers.
Tran said "the real issue goes back to campaign planning" and that the newspaper extended its invitation after organizers of the Leominster High School and FLAP-TV forums did.
Asked whether he would attend a Sentinel & Enterprise debate on a different date, Tran said the date of the proposed debate isn't the main reason he declined.
Tran said he has already gone "above and beyond" in meeting requests for forums with the two candidates.
"It's not about the time and the dates. It has to do with fitting everything into my schedule, and we agreed to more than what we planned on," he said.
Mayor Dean Mazzarella endorsed Tran this year and said choosing not to participate in the newspaper's debate was Tran's decision.
"He has to feel comfortable and I would say that if he didn't, then it's best to responsibly decline and wait for a forum that he feels gets the issues out," he said.
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale, a Democrat who has endorsed Tran, said: "It's always a good idea to present yourself to as many voters as possible," adding that declining a debate creates unnecessary distractions during a campaign.
Higgins was critical of Tran's decision, saying legislators have a responsibility to be "accessible and transparent" to their constituents.
"I'm surprised and disappointed," she said. "Voters of the district deserve as many opportunities as possible to learn about their viewpoints and goals and what they're going to do as an elected official."