DRACUT — Weeks of tension between state Rep. Colleen Garry and School Committee member Sabrina Heisey boiled over Tuesday during a debate hosted by Your Dracut Today.
Roughly 150 people — some of whom stood in the back of a packed room inside the Dracut American Legion Post 315 — watched as moderator Jayne Wellman Miller led the candidates through a labyrinth of issues that included Massachusetts gun laws, economic development, education, and safe injection sites for those struggling with heroin addiction. Both Heisey and Garry did their best to state with clarity their positions, but did not shy away from taking jabs at each other.
Wellman Miller shared the grades Heisey and Garry received from the National Rifle Association: Heisey received an F, and Garry received a B+. She asked the candidates to opine on the state’s gun laws.
Garry said she has a license to carry, though she does not have a gun. She also stressed that she has not received any money from the NRA. “I believe that people have a right to have a weapon to secure their property, their family,” Garry said. “I did vote for the toughest gun law in the nation… I did, however, not vote for the extreme risk protection order because it did nothing to try to get help for the person who might be at risk for hurting themselves or hurting others.”
Heisey said she believes in people’s right to own a weapon. “But as a mom to six children, when I see a school shooting, I think about, ‘Where are my kids?’ at that moment, and how many parents have looked at the TV and said, ‘I kissed my kid this morning. Are they OK?'” Heisey said. “And as a parent, and as a person who wants public safety, I believe in things like the extreme risk protection order, which was endorsed by the police.”
Wellman Miller asked Heisey to address what some say was a quick move to a run for state representative after being elected onto the Dracut School Committee. Heisey shook up town politics last year when she beat out incumbent Matthew Sheehan for a three-year School Committee seat.
“I think that it is really important to address the root of the problem,” Heisey said. “It did not take a year on the School Committee to understand that the problems that we’re facing are at the state level. I can’t fix our budget from the local level… we cannot fix the failure of the Statehouse.”
Heisey added that she did not see a Statehouse fighting for the basic right of public education where it does not matter what your zipcode is.
Garry said she found it “very, very funny” that Heisey thinks that the problems are at the Statehouse. The incumbent said that, besides MassHealth, education gets the vast majority of the extra money in the budget.
“Frankly, for all those educators out there who educate in Dracut and Tyngsboro, and the region, you’re insulting,” Garry said. “They do a tremendous job in this community and in Tyngsboro to educate our children, and I wouldn’t diminish anything to say that money is the only reason that kids are going to get a good education.”
Heisey said the fact that teachers here are paid less is “actually insulting to our educators.”
“The real value is teachers. It’s not a building. A building won’t teach your children,” Heisey said in her rebuttal. “It is the quality of the education that you receive and that means the extras.”
On whether she supports the idea of safe injection sites in Dracut and Tyngsboro, Garry said she is absolutely against them, adding that the Statehouse has been taking the opioid crisis very seriously.
Heisey said safe injection sites have been proven to be successful in other places, but that the opioids are a much wider issue than just these sites. “I think it’s really important to see them as a person who is suffering and that, if safe injection sites will prevent the spread of disease — which we have seen go up as opioids have become a problem — I think that I would be open to that, but what I really think we need to do is see them as a human being in need,” Heisey said.
In recent weeks, the race between Heisey and Garry has grown contentious. Heisey has said she understands the district’s unique needs and would serve as an advocate for Dracut children and families who are struggling.
Garry, who has served in her role as state representative for the 36th Middlesex District for over two decades, has touted her years of dedication to the district’s citizens as well as her institutional knowledge of the Statehouse and of the communities.
In her closing statement, Heisey said Garry has put her own ideology and friends above the needs of the residents of this district. She said she chose this district as her home, as a place to raise her children, and promised to fight tooth and nail for every single resident — “not just the majority.”
Garry said it has been her honor to serve the voters of Dracut and Tyngsboro over the last 24 years. She said she has never used her position as state representative as a “stepping stone.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.