By Jonathan Phelps
---- — PEABODY — State representative candidate Leah Cole, a Republican, came out swinging last night against unenrolled candidate David Gravel for accepting an endorsement from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a group she says strongly supports Gov. Deval Patrick’s controversial plan to raise taxes.
Earlier in the debate, Gravel had said he doesn’t support Patrick’s budget and its increased taxes.
“I’d just like to know how you can be endorsed by the Mass. Teachers Association and also oppose the increase in taxes?” Cole, 24, a licensed practical nurse, asked Gravel during a question on each candidate’s priorities.
Gravel, 56, a city councilor-at-large, was quick to shoot back about Cole’s campaign contributions from out of town, including the Marlborough Republican City Committee.
“They endorsed me because of my experience working in education, they endorsed me because of my past experience working in collective bargaining, and they also endorsed me knowing that, unlike you, I take no PAC money and I don’t take my money from Marlborough, I take my money from Peabody,” he said.
Gravel, Cole and school board member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, 55, a Democrat, are running for Peabody’s 12th Essex District state representative seat in Tuesday’s special election. The seat was left vacant by the November death of Rep. Joyce Spiliotis.
During the exchange between Cole and Gravel, Griffin Dunne took aim at a mailer sent to Peabody residents by the Massachusetts GOP saying that both Griffin Dunne and Gravel would be “Peas in a Pod” with Patrick.
“That is a pure and simple example of why the country is in the mess it is in today, because that’s a negative, negative campaign ad that further divides our community and divides our nation,” she said.
Cole said she had nothing to do with the advertisement and apologized for the attack. But she defended taking out-of-town money, saying that “people across the state are excited about my message to bring lower taxes and accountability to the Statehouse.”
The trio talked about a host of local issues, ranging from supporting senior citizens to affordable housing to local aid during the hourlong debate held at the Wiggin Auditorium at City Hall. A sizable crowd lined both sides of the street beforehand holding signs in support of all three candidates.
The debate was sponsored by The Salem News and the Peabody Chamber of Commerce.
A major talking point of the evening revolved around abuse of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards across the state.
“I can’t believe that the technology doesn’t exist that we can’t implement controls that allow for more efficiency out of the EBT program and eliminate the fraud and the waste that goes on with the few who abuse it,” Gravel said.
Griffin Dunne said there needs to be more control over what people buy with the cards.
“Fraud is always going to exist, and I think that we should have vigorous prosecution of anyone who participates in the fraud of the EBT card,” she said. “That includes people who are trading them, using them improperly and businesses who are allowing improper purchases.”
Cole disagreed that only a few are abusing the system and recommended that photo identification be put on the cards so they can’t be sold.
“The problem is we are not doing the proper checks, looking into the people who are applying for these benefits, we’re not looking into their Social Security numbers, we are not looking into their employment to see if they even qualify,” Cole said.
Griffin Dunne said her most important role as state representative will be constituent services.
“I know that one of the first things a legislator will face going to Boston is the budget, and I am going to do that,” she said. “However, my first priority is going to provide constituent services to the people of Peabody.”
Cole said her first priority will be to fight against Patrick’s proposed budget.
“We can’t afford this increase in taxes to support the governor’s bloated budget; we need to bring some accountability,” she said. “My priorities will be: Protect the taxpayer, be accountable to where their money is going and be a voice for the citizens of Peabody.”
Gravel said he will also fight against Patrick’s tax increases.
“I agree there’s no room for new taxes today,” he said. “We have an economy that is just on the verge of coming back.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.