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Senate Candidates Face Off on Environment

Capuano, Coakley, Khazei, and Pagliuca square off on Comm Ave

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The four Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, at an environmental forum yesterday at BU: (from left) Congressman Michael Capuano (Hon.’09), state Attorney General Martha Coakley (LAW’79), City Year founder Alan Khazei, and businessman and Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca. The event drew some 200 people. In the video below, moments of mirth were also revealed, during the question and answer period. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Michael Capuano (Hon.’09), six-term congressman, former Somerville mayor, and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, tried hard yesterday afternoon to persuade his audience in the Metcalf Trustee Center that his years in Washington have given him an understanding of senatorial realpolitik — unlike his opponents.

Candidate Alan Khazei, a founder of the City Year program, said his disdain for lobbyists was so great that he would refuse to meet with lobbyists even from the Sierra Club, one of the organizations sponsoring the four-candidate debate on environmental issues.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (LAW’79) said she was proud to head an office that sued the Environmental Protection Agency for “not protecting the environment.”

And multimillionaire Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca said he would not vote for any bill that promoted greater use of nuclear power.

The 90-minute debate, moderated by James Braude, host of NECN’s Broadside, was powered by questions from a three-person panel: Beth Daley of the Boston Globe, Sacha Pfeiffer (MET’94) of BU’s NPR station WBUR, and Sydney Lupkin (COM’10) of the Daily Free Press. The panelists peppered the candidates running for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward M. Kennedy (Hon.’70) with questions ranging from wind farms to climate change to the cars they drive.

Two Republicans, state Senator Scott Brown and businessman Jack E. Robinson, are also running. The special state primary will take place on Tuesday, December 8, and the special election is scheduled for January 19, 2010.

Capuano appeared eager to tout his pragmatism, even if that pragmatism meant voting for imperfect legislation. Coakley pointed to achievements as attorney general: in addition to suing the EPA, her office empowered an Environmental Crime Strike Force. Khazei billed himself as a reformer, the only candidate who doesn’t accept money from political action committees or lobbyists. And Pagliuca sought to tie investment in green technologies to jobs, more than once calling for an end to the U.S. dependence on oil.

The candidates were asked if the government should be given expanded powers to overrule local opposition to renewable energy projects. Cape Wind, a proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, has been stalled for years, the latest obstacle coming last month with objections from Native Americans.

Khazei said the federal government should have more power in such cases. “Cape Wind will provide 75 percent of the electricity for the Cape and the Islands,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road. We need to move aggressively on this.”

Capuano said local officials should have “reasonable” authority. “It always ends up that the worst items, not just windmills, end up in the poorest areas,” he said. “They never end up in the wealthiest areas. So if you take away some local control, you are dooming the poorest people in our society, the ones with the least voice, to bear the brunt.”

Pagliuca and Coakley cited the importance of local authority. But Pagliuca said the process should be streamlined. “You shouldn’t be able to delay projects for 10 or 11 years through the courts,” he said. “There has to be local control, but a finite time frame.”

“We need a centralized way to go forward to get alternative fuels,” Coakley said. “There are ways to streamline.”

A question about a climate bill pending in the Senate drew the liveliest exchange. Would the candidates vote for the bill if it includes incentives for nuclear power and offshore drilling?

It depends on what else is in the bill, Capuano said. “The climate bill I just voted for had a whole bunch of things I don’t like,” he said. “But we had to get 218 votes; we had to make the deals to make progress. We had to put nuclear power in the House bill, not because of what we wanted, but because we had to get enough votes, mostly out of the South and the Southeast.”

Coakley said she would have to study the issues before voting. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about nuclear safety,” she said. “I think nuclear can’t be off the table, but I would focus on those core concerns.”

Khazei said he is against subsidies to the nuclear industry and opposes offshore drilling. However, he said, “if Senator Kerry and Senator Reid and President Obama say this is the best we can do, I will vote for it.”

In a jab at the other candidates’ answers, Khazei said those running must be able to tell voters exactly where they stand. “People have to decide how they’re going to vote for us now.”

At that point, Capuano turned to Khazei: “So you’re telling me you’d vote for any bill — any bill — that the president told you to vote for?’’

As Khazei reiterated his position, blaming PACs and lobbyists for problems with the bill, Capuano interjected, “So you have no free will on this issue whatsoever?”

“I have free will,” Khazei answered. “But we need to get climate change done.”

During the exchange, Khazei asked Coakley if she believed the oil industry lobbyists that have contributed to her campaign will expect her to side with them.

Coakley responded that as attorney general, she has always disclosed where her donations come from, “and I’ve always made my decisions based upon the merits of the issue.”

Pagliuca said he would vote against the bill, adding that he wouldn’t subsidize nuclear power and that he would rather let private enterprise do it. “I think it [nuclear power] has to be part of the approach. But there are issues in the environment we haven’t solved with nuclear power,” he said. “We have to reduce emissions over time; we have to look at either cap and trade or carbon taxes and phase those in so they’re fair.” He said he opposes offshore drilling. “The key here is to end dependence on oil.”

In a lighter moment, the candidates were asked about their cars (Capuano and Coakley drive Ford Escapes, Khazei a 15-year-old Toyota Corolla wagon, and Pagliuca a hybrid Lexus and a 10-year-old Lexus) and their “greenest” personal habits. Coakley and Pagliuca recycle and compost. Khazei and Capuano recycle and try to be energy efficient.

The candidates also were asked about next month’s U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen. If an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions comes out of the summit, would they support heavy taxes or tariffs on imports from countries that didn’t sign?

Capuano and Khazei said they would, “because it’s a good policy,” Capuano said.

And what if the United States didn’t sign?

“Well,” he said, “I think we will.”

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Yesterday’s debate among senate hopefuls had its moments of mirth, as the video above reveals. Video courtesy of the College of Communication

The candidates forum was hosted by College of Communication Dean Thomas Fiedler (COM’71) and sponsored by the Environmental League of Massachusetts, along with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Clean Water Action, the Conservation Law Foundation, Environment Massachusetts, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Massachusetts Sierra Club, Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters, and the Trustees of Reservations.

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.

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