8th District candidates find lots of common ground, quarrel over ‘insider’ insult

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 Eighth District congressional candidates Steve Santarsiero (left)and Brian Fitzpatrick face off in a debate at Bucks County College. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Eighth District congressional candidates Steve Santarsiero (left)and Brian Fitzpatrick face off in a debate at Bucks County College. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Candidates in Pennsylvania’s s only competitive U.S, congressional race faced off in Bucks County Thursday.

Hosted by Bucks County Community College in Bristol, the debate was the second Democrat Steve Santarsiero and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick have sparred in person.

On the issues, the candidates shared many positions — and offered some nuanced differences.

The 75-minute debate, while mostly civil, soured during closing remarks.

‘Career politician’ and other election year dirty words

“If you want to know the difference between the two people on the stage right now, one is a career politician and one spent his career arresting politicians,” said Fitzpatrick, who touted his experience as a certified public accountant and as an investigator for the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office.

Santarsiero is a former lawyer and high school social studies teacher in Bensalem. He went on to serve on the Lower Makefield Township board of supervisors and, since 2008, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Santarsiero lobbed his own insider slam, calling Fitzpatrick the epitome of a rigged system that benefits those with connections.

“Brian, the reality is you would not be running for this seat if your brother were not the congressman,” referring to incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick, who gave up his seat this year after reaching a self-imposed term limit.

“You would not have been given the Republican nomination. And that’s just the reality.”

That pointed exchange — and comments about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — were largely in contrast to the debate’s subdued tone.

This week, Fitzpatrick distanced himself from his party’s presidential pick, saying he won’t vote for either major party candidate. Santasiero said he should have denounced Trump a long time ago.

“Those comments made by Donald Trump last Friday were offensive, but so too was attacking a federal judge because of his ancestry, so too was attacking a Gold Star family, so too was saying he was OK with nuclear proliferation,” said Santarsiero.

Fitzpatrick had previously said he would support the candidate Republican voters in his district picked in the primary, which was Trump.

Similar proposals — with subtle differences

The wide-ranging debate, moderated by BCCC professor Bill Pezza, betrayed a number of shared views between the Republican and Democratic candidates, as well as some nuanced differences.

First up — taxes.

Santarsiero said working families are crushed by unfair tax codes that favor the wealthy.

Fitzpatrick seconded that.

“As a CPA, our internal revenue code is a mess … it’s incomprehensible, loaded with special interest loopholes, and it has to end,” he said. Fitzpatrick also called for lower corporate taxes, saying they create an unfriendly business environment.

Both also support major investment in infrastructure to create jobs — though they differ on how to fund it. Santarsiero said bonds should be used, while Fitzpatrick didn’t propose a specific policy but said growing the economy should pay for the improvements.

On the topic of immigration, there was also some overlap.

“I think mass deportation is a silly idea, it’s not workable and it’s not humane,” said Fitzpatrick, referencing Trump’s proposal to deport more than 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, allowing some to return through legal immigration channels.

Santarsiero also spoke against mass deportation, and he argued for a path to legal citizenship for those already living and working in the U.S.

“Those who are here and work and pay taxes should have an opportunity to stay here,” he said. “Those who commit crimes should not be here.”

Both candidates oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Fitzpatrick decried other large trade deals as well, while Santarsiero said trade deals have value, but the TPP is not “fair.”

One major difference? What to do about the deal struck with Iran over nuclear weapons. Santarsiero said honor it. Fitzpatrick, scrap it.

Pezza acknowledged the candidates did not get chance to touch on abortion, Russia or cyberwarfare, and joked the candidates could stay for a few more hours if they wanted.

After the debate, Fitzpatrick left and Santarsiero took questions from reporters.

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