Tension Pervades Primary Election Debate
By: James Kinsella
The contenders in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Barnstable District seat engaged in an often testy debate Tuesday evening at the JFK Museum in Hyannis.
The incumbent, Demetrius J. Atsalis of West Hyannisport, and the challenger, Brian R. Mannal of Centerville, traded barbs as they addressed a number of issues.
About 50 people attended the debate, which was sponsored and broadcast live by Hyannis radio station WXTK-FM.
Mr. Atsalis operates a parking lot business in Hyannis with his wife.
Mr. Mannal has a law practice based in Hyannis.
Mr. Atsalis, who first was elected to the seat in 1998, said he is part of the leadership on Beacon Hill and has shown the ability to get things done.
He said he has brought more than $15 million to the district, including $3.5 million in funding for the Hyannis Youth & Community Center, $2 million for improvements to Main Street in Hyannis and $750,000 for the Hyannis waterfront.
In his opening statement, Mr. Mannal said he was not satisfied with the job performance of Mr. Atsalis as state representative for the district, which covers sections of Barnstable and Yarmouth.
“I believe I can do a better job,” Mr. Mannal said.
When residents of the Stewart’s Creek area of Hyannis reached out to Mr. Atsalis about wastewater concerns, Mr. Mannal said, the state representative was not there.
Mr. Atsalis replied that he had spoken with and been supportive of the residents living near Stewart’s Creek. Mr. Mannal, he said, must have been confusing him with one of his past Republican opponents.
The candidates also argued over who was more supportive of gay rights.
Mr. Mannal said Mr. Atsalis missed a key vote in 2007 that could have placed the question of gay marriage on the ballot.
Mr. Atsalis acknowledged missing that vote by seconds—he said he was held up by traffic—but said he was supportive of gay marriage before and after that vote.
Speaking of his opponent, Mr. Atsalis said, “I’ve never seen him out there talking in front of a crowd” on gay rights.
Mr. Mannal said he had family members and friends who were gay or lesbian.
He further said he was a member of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
When the candidates were asked whether they would support a tax on gasoline consumption, Mr. Atsalis said he would not.
“Times are still tough,” he said.
Mr. Mannal, however, was open to the idea.
A tax of 10 cents per gallon would not necessarily be too large a burden, he said.
He did favor a tax on Amazon.com, which can avoid sales tax assessed against brick-and-mortar businesses.
The candidates also differed on “three strikes and you’re out” legislation, which would make people convicted of three violent crimes ineligible for parole.
Mr. Mannal faulted the bill for not including a section allowing judicial discretion.
“Prisons are supposed to reform people,” he said.
But Mr. Atsalis said judicial discretion often was exactly the problem.
“Prisons just aren’t to reform people,” Mr. Atsalis said. “Prisons are made to house our most violent criminals. We just can’t let them out.”
Asked about the Massachusetts version of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, which authorizes the use of deadly force in self-defense, Mr. Mannal said he would oppose the legislation.
He faulted Mr. Atsalis for supporting aspects of the legislation, and said existing Massachusetts self-defense laws provide adequate legal protection.
Mr. Atsalis said the use of deadly force by an individual is warranted on some occasions.
He said he has held off on full support of the legislation because of his concern that it does not provide an individual with protection against civil liability.
Asked about a personal experience that the candidates had had that would enhance their ability to serve the people of Barnstable, Mr. Atsalis spoke of a disciplinary job he formerly held at the Hyannis West Elementary School.
He said he was able to connect emotionally with students who came from troubled homes.
Mr. Mannal spoke of how his job as an attorney often involves a lot of listening.
He said it is a skill that he has put to use in listening to the concerns of voters during the current campaign.
During the debate, Mr. Mannal acknowledged he had worked “eight or nine weeks” in 2000 for the Republican presidential campaign of George W. Bush.
He said he became a Democrat in 2004.
“I’ve grown,” Mr. Mannal said. “I’ve moved away from the dark side.”
Mr. Atsalis, however, referred to different versions of how long Mr. Mannal worked for that presidential campaign, with one version putting the figure at 20 weeks.
The candidates also sparred over roll call votes and quorum counts that Mr. Atsalis had missed.
Mr. Atsalis said a number of the missed votes came in July 2010, when he went overseas to help his wife mourn the death of her father there.
The legislator said Mr. Mannal has depicted a longer absence on his part than actually occurred.
“That is disingenuous and I am disgusted about it,” he said.
In reply, Mr. Mannal urged debate listeners to search the Internet for reports issued by “Beacon Hill Roll Call,” a column that runs in The Barnstable Enterprise, and judge for themselves.
In this section of the debate, Mr. Atsalis said Mr. Mannal was let go by a former employer, a state representative.
Mr. Mannal said he has never been let go.
Mr. Mannal also questioned why Mr. Atsalis, after seven terms in the House, only has progressed as far as vice chairman of the Transportation Committee.
Members with less seniority already are chairing committees, he said.
After the debate concluded, Mr. Atsalis approached a Barnstable Enterprise reporter and said those members got those chairmanships because they supported Speaker Robert DeLeo and jailed former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi.
When told of the comment by Mr. Atsalis, Mr. Mannal replied by sending the reporter a published news report from 2009 reporting that Mr. Atsalis was supporting then-Speaker DiMasi, as well as another published news report from 2002 reporting that Mr. Atsalis was supporting then-Speaker Thomas Finneran, who subsequently resigned and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
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