Bucks Republicans clash over Russia, immigration in congressional debate

The most divisive figure in a Republican debate in Bucks County Tuesday afternoon wasn’t President Donald Trump, but Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Dean Malik, the Doylestown attorney taking on Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in the May 15 GOP primary election, urged empathy for the foreign leader during a moderated discussion at Bucks County Community College.

“We misunderstand their motives, and we imply sinister, almost cartoonlike motives to a nation that is simply acting in its own best interest,” said Malik, in response to a question about Russia’s 2014 military annexation of Crimea, a region that had been a part of Ukraine.

“Russia has, by and large, sinister motives. My last international assignment with the FBI was in Ukraine,” said Fitzpatrick, a former special supervisory agent. “They’ve tried twice, via cyber attack, to knock out the electrical grid in Ukraine.”

The exchange was one of several disagreements between the candidates over the role of the U.S. on the global stage, from NATO to Syria to North Korea.

Malik, whose campaign website bills him as a “real Republican,” is a former assistant district attorney in Bucks County and judge advocate in the Marines. He is currently a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. In the audience of about 100, a few people wore red hats with Malik’s riff on a Trump campaign slogan: “Make PA-01 Great Again,” referring to the new district number the local congressional district number for this part of Pennsylvania.

Fitzpatrick is a freshman representative in what was Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District — before an overhaul of the state map reshaped its western border and renamed it the 1st. He is running on bipartisanship (slogan: “One community. Now more than ever”). He was a Special Assistant U.S. attorney and FBI agent focusing on political corruption before winning the congressional seat his brother Mike vacated.

The winner of the Republican primary will face one of three Democratic candidates: Rachel Reddick, Steve Bacher or Scott Wallace.

During the 70-minute debate, moderated by BCCC government professor Bill Pezza, Fitzpatrick advocated  compromise with Democrats, while remaining firmly in support of the Republican economic tenets of lowering taxes and reducing the deficit. Both Republican hopefuls toed similar lines when it came to fiscal policy, but diverged when weighing in on social policy.

On the issue of “Dreamers,” immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children, Fitzpatrick said he supports a path to citizenship, but that “any immigration reform package has to deal with border security.”

Malik said he opposes any legislated relief. “While there are stories that tug at your heart strings, they don’t have rights here,” he said, recommending that unauthorized immigrants be induced to come forward so they can be deported.

The two candidates also diverged on whether Congress should ramp up background checks for gun buyers, a legislative effort that Fitzpatrick has co-sponsored, but that Malik said is an intrusion into American’s privacy, as well as Congress’ role in overseeing the executive branch.

“The Congress doesn’t have oversight over the executive,” said Malik.

“Maybe I disagree with your premise,” he told Pezza.

Fitzpatrick called for Congress to reassert its authority over the executive, in particular to take back war-making powers.

Throughout their discussion, Malik criticized Fitzpatrick for running for his brother’s old seat; his position that climate change is a man-made phenomenon; and his participation in the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus. When given the option of responding to these rebukes by Pezza, Fitzpatrick rarely took it.

“I believe, once you’re elected, you have to be a voice for everybody,” said Fitzpatrick of his bipartisan legislative attempts.

“I am sick of being lectured that to win this district, you have to be middle of the road,” said Malik.

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