By Gintautas Dumcius and Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Treasurer Steve Grossman and Attorney General Martha Coakley on Monday clashed over her settlement with a lobbyist and whether to allow a Springfield casino to open even if voters strike down an expanded gambling law in November.

With a new Suffolk-Boston Herald poll showing a tightening Democratic primary race for governor, all three Democrats on the ballot squared off Monday morning in a Boston Herald Radio debate, which is the first of several on the calendar as the campaign turns the corner into the final two week before the primary.

Joined by former Obama healthcare official and fellow Democrat Don Berwick, who called them both "professional politicians" and tried to rise above what he called "bickering," Coakley and Grossman also quarreled over whether Grossman's campaign outsourced production of large signs.

The back-and-forth came as a poll from Suffolk University and the Boston Herald showed a tightening primary race, in which Coakley holds a 12-point lead over Grossman with 42 percent of the vote to Grossman's 30 percent among very likely primary voters.

Berwick trails in third place with 16 percent, while 12 percent of likely Democratic primary voters are still undecided. The poll, conducted Aug. 21 through Aug. 24, had a 4.


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9 percent margin of error. The last SocialSphere/Boston Globe poll released last week had Coakley winning by a 21 point margin. The margin shrunk to 18 points among voters who definitely plan to vote on Sept. 9.

"It's sort of teetering. You have a 12 percent lead for Coakley and 12 percent undecided so essentially if you're Steve Grossman you have to thread the needle almost perfectly," said Suffolk pollster David Paleologos on the radio after the debate.

Grossman returned to a line of attack against Coakley that he has honed over the past week criticizing the civil settlement she reached with the Brennan Group, which allows the firm to pay $100,000 to the Franciscan Hospital for Children and avoid civil or criminal charges. The firm had been paid over $370,000 under an allegedly improper lobbying agreement with the hospital.

Asked during the internet radio debate whether she should have recused herself from the investigation since the lobbying firm had once thrown a fundraiser for her, Coakley continued to defend her handling of the case as Grossman said it was part of a "pattern of bad judgment."

"We called it as we saw it, I've always done that, we made it transparent," Coakley said.

Coakley then said Grossman has taken more than $150,000 from industries he regulates. "I assume he does the right thing as I have always done," Coakley said. The Coakley campaign has noted that Grossman since October 2009 has accepted $153,175 in campaign contributions from the liquor and catering industries, two areas he regulates as the overseer of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

The hospital is "very happy" with the settlement, Coakley added.

Grossman pointed to Maura Healey, who worked in Coakley's office and is now running to replace Coakley, saying last week that the attorney general didn't go far enough in Brennan case. "Here's a lobbyist, a well-connected lobbyist, who raised money for you, who was allowed to walk laughing all the way to the bank with 270,000 dollars of money that he got from the Franciscan Hospital for Children, a contract that we all acknowledge was illegal," he said.

Coakley said she respects Healey and again raised Grossman taking donations from industries he oversees as treasurer. "I don't assume you've done anything wrong, I've explained what I've done, I stand on that explanation," she said.

Berwick broke in. "You're hearing politics as usual, this bickering," he said. "The public isn't concerned about this. The public is worried about their jobs, they're worried about their futures."

Coakley briefly trained fire on former health insurance executive Charlie Baker, the frontrunner in the Republican primary, referring to him as "Charlie 'Big Dig' Baker," and in a reprisal of the Democratic playbook against Baker in the 2010 gubernatorial race, sought to pin cost overruns of the Big Dig to Baker.

She then pivoted to question Grossman about his campaign allegedly outsourcing the production of some of its campaign signs to out-of-state printers.

"Well, the fact is the vast majority of the printing that is done, all union printing, is done at Standard Modern Printing Company in Brockton, we're their single largest customer," Grossman said.

That prompted Berwick to break in again. "You're hearing the problem here. Listen to the debate here. Back and forth and back and forth," he said. "Look, running for office is different from managing. My opponents have run collectively 10 races for six different offices. They're professional politicians."

Berwick, who opposes casinos, pressed Coakley on the issue. "Do you want casinos or not?" he asked.

Coakley said "at this stage" she won't vote for repealing the 2011 law that allows up to three casinos in Massachusetts. Question 3, which is on the November ballot, would ban casinos in the state.

If voters back keeping the casino law, Coakley said, the state has to work on "realizing the economic benefits" and mitigating the damages of casinos.

Baker has said he is open to allowing a Springfield casino to open, through legislation, if the 2011 gambling law is repealed in November.

Grossman said if the majority of voters say they don't want casinos, he would not file or support such legislation. "I think you have to let the people speak," Grossman said. The treasurer said he plans to vote against the proposed repeal.

Coakley said, "We could revisit if Springfield really wants to do it."

Grossman responded, "I think when you basically take the view of the people, you take the ballots, and you basically say I don't care what the people voted, we're going to do it anyhow, I think you undermine any sense of trust people have that their vote matters."

Asked what they would say to female voters who wants a female in the Corner Office, Grossman pointed to his support for universal pre-kindergarten and said his family business had equal pay for women.

"You know, I say elect a feminist," Berwick said. "I'm as strong a feminist as anyone at this table and anyone in this race. I've spent my career fighting for reproductive rights, for women's health."

"I agree with my colleagues," Coakley said. "The voters should vote on what we've experienced and what we're going to do in the office. When I graduated from law school, my dad said, 'Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.' And I talk about that."

While Coakley held a commanding lead over Grossman among women (49 percent to 26 percent), she trailed the treasurer by a point among likely male voters in the Democratic primary.

Over 13 percent of likely Democratic voters said they would vote for either the Republican nominee or an independent if their preferred candidate losses the Democratic primary, with 7.5 percent saying they would vote for the Republican and 5.75 percent saying they would vote for one of the three non-party candidates on the ballot in November.