In today's Sentinel & Enterprise:
LEOMINSTER -- In their first debate leading up to the Nov. 8 election, 4th Worcester District state-rep candidates Natalie Higgins and Thomas "Frank" Ardinger squared off primarily on the issues of taxes and the pros and cons of being part of the House majority.
The Sentinel & Enterprise-sponsored debate held at City Hall revealed the main difference between Democrat Higgins and Republican Ardinger is their approach to how government finances should be handled.
"As long as I hold this office, I will not vote to increase taxes or fees at any level of government," Ardinger said, explaining the state already has the funds it needs to make positive change. "We have room to cut and make adjustments."
Ardinger also said he opposes the state's "Fair Share" amendment proposal, also called the "millionaire's tax," which would levy a 4-cent tax on every dollar of earned income over $1 million.
Higgins favors the proposal.
"It takes the burden off us as middle- and lower-income families, because so many of us are struggling to make ends meet," she said, explaining the amendment proposal would impact a very small percentage of residents "not pitching in their fair share."
Higgins and Ardinger also differed on Question 2, which would lift the cap on the number of charter schools that could be created in the state.
Ardinger said he favors the ballot question, adding he doesn't understand why people think public schools will lose money when districts are receiving reimbursements.
Higgins disagreed, saying she's concerned with how a charter expansion would drain funding from established public schools.
"Question 2 isn't about charters, it's about lifting a cap that hasn't been met yet," she said, adding that charter schools select a district's best-performing students and not high-needs students who require more educational funding.
The two also showed a sharp contrast during their closing statements, when Higgins said she had the resources and connections to hit the ground running, while Ardinger said he was not trying to be career politician like his opponent.
"I would appreciate in the future not having words put in my mouth," Higgins said in response.
While Ardinger pointed out that his opponent would be another member of the House's Democratic majority, Higgins argued she was willing to work across the aisle and has the existing relationships within the Statehouse that a freshman legislator would need.
When answering a question about voting against Democratic Speaker Robert DeLeo, Ardinger said: "I don't have to vote with him any time at all. I can vote against him every day and still survive as a state legislator."
Both candidates said they would each put the needs of Leominster's residents before their own parties.
Candidates also disagreed over the ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana (Higgins supports and Ardinger opposes), as well as the possibility of accepting per-diem money if elected. Higgins pointed out that it was money already factored into a legislator's salary; Ardinger said he would refuse to accept per-diem money if elected.
In some areas, the candidates didn't disagree quite as sharply, but still showed some differences of opinion.
Ardinger was adamantly opposed to Attorney General Maura Healey's crackdown on assault weapons, while Higgins offered more mild criticism by saying, "We should have brought people into the conversation a little earlier, so they knew what was happening."
Ardinger was also vocal about his support of term limits for the speaker of the House.
When discussing the issue, Higgins said, "I will defer to my peers on how they're handling the situation."
However, candidates did agree on several topics, including the subject of tax-free holidays, which Higgins and Ardinger both described as a "quick fix." They also agreed the area is in need of more addiction-support services to help residents coping with the opioid epidemic.
Tuesday night marked the first debate for Republican candidate Ardinger, who ran unopposed during the primary.
The two candidates are vying to fill the seat held by Rep. Dennis Rosa, who chose not to seek re-election after four terms.
This is the first state-representative race that either candidate has been a part of. Ardinger, who serves as a Republican State Committeeman and city Board of Health member, had previously led an unsuccessful write-in campaign for an at-large City Council seat last November.
Higgins, a local attorney and executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, defeated fellow Democrat and Ward 5 City Councilor Richard Marchand by just 38 votes in the Sept. 8 primary election.
Higgins and Ardinger debate again at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at the Leominster Public Library. The event is sponsored by the Leominster Champion.