Allen and Gabriel face off in rare primary contest

Heading into the Sept. 16 primary, state Rep. Willie Mae Allen squared off against her challenger Faustina "Kathy" Gabriel in a forum last week, with both voicing their respective takes on violence prevention tactics and support for public transportation.

In the brief forum last Thursday at English High School in Jamaica Plain, Gabriel, a relative newcomer on the local political scene, sought to knock Allen off her perch, but failed to land any hits.

Allen is a first-term state representative who succeeded 20-year veteran Shirley Owens-Hicks in 2006, while Gabriel is a community activist who helped run the campaign of Allen's chief opponent, William Celester.

Allen touted her vote to "remove discrimination in our constitution," referring to the 1913 law that prevented out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying. Lawmakers voted to repeal the law in July. Asked about predatory lending agencies and the round of foreclosures that have hit the state - and Dorchester in particular - hard, Allen noted that she had co-sponsored a bill providing for a statewide 6-month moratorium on foreclosures. That bill has not reached the floor of the House or Senate.

Gabriel called for banks to work more closely with homeowners to prevent foreclosures and panned the moratorium idea.

"We need a more aggressive plan," she said.

In her sharpest moment, Gabriel said she "won't abandon" constituents if she's sent to Beacon Hill.

"I will keep you abreast of the issues going on in our community."

Allen said she has an "open door" policy at her State House office. "I hear you," she said. "Nobody can say Willie Mae Allen abandoned us."

The candidates were also quizzed on their stances on youth violence. Allen said she supported increased funding for anti-violence programs such as the Shannon Grant and called for more mentors for youth. "We have many young males who do not have anybody to turn to," she said.

Gabriel said she would propose a two-year mandatory sentence for possession of illegal and unlicensed weapons.

"The problem beings at home," she added. "We need to instill in our youths responsibility… We need the mother and the father in the home to discipline their children."

The audience clapped in response, as did Allen.

Asked about high gas prices, which were feared at one point to hit $5 a gallon, Allen said she voted to improve public transportation and infrastructure through borrowing bills the Legislature approved.

"We have to pray to elect Barack Obama so he can help us with the gas prices," Gabriel said in her response.

At the end of the forum, Ward 11, one of the sponsors of the event, voted to endorse Allen.

Allen also has an advantage through campaign funds. Allen has $4,600 as she heads into the primary, having raised $18,600 and having spent $18,300, according to state finance records. The figures roughly match what she raised and spent in the 2006 campaign. Most of her expenditures went to paying rent for her headquarters and the salary for her campaign manager, Kelly Young.

Funds for Allen's coffers came from most members of the Dorchester State House delegation, along with other colleagues in the House; the political action committees (PACs) of several unions, including 1199 SEIU, Boston Teachers Union, Massachusetts Association of Realtors; Democratic fundraiser Alan Solomont; philanthropic activist Barbara Lee; the Democratic State Committee; and Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral.

Gabriel has about $1,622 in funds available for the final week, having raised $3,944 and having spent $2,322. She has loaned herself $1,658 for the campaign, according to her campaign finance report. Much of the money she has spent has gone towards yard signs and "thank you" letters to supporters.

The race in the Sixth Suffolk district is one of just a handful of contested races in the region that will take place during next Tuesday's election. State Rep. Marie St. Fleur faces a challenge from perennial candidate Roy Owens in the Fifth Suffolk next week.