The two candidates for that hotly contested congressional race in Bucks County went at each other Tuesday in the first debate of a campaign that will get lots of national attention and ad money.
They met at the cozy confines of radio station WBCB 1490-AM in Levittown, where the staff offices and studio fit under one modest roof and the transmitter rises from the back yard.
The 8th District in Bucks County (and a sliver of Montgomery County) offers a rare thing in congressional contests — a seat that is both open and competitive.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican, is not seeking re-election in a district that has chosen Democrats and Republicans in recent years.
The Democrat in the race is four-term state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, who touts a record of working along with Republicans to try and get things done.
His opponent is Brian Fitzpatrick, the brother of the incumbent. He grew up and went to college in the area, but pursued a career in the FBI and lived outside the district until last year, when he surprised other Republican hopefuls by moving back and capturing the party’s nomination.
Who’s the insider?
Santarsiero raised the issue of Fitzpatrick’s background early in the debate.
“You would not be running for Congress today if you didn’t have connections,” Santarsiero said. “Your brother is the congressman. You came in from California eight months ago and essentially were handed the Republican nomination. I think that’s the definition of an insider.”
Fitzpatrick was ready with a comeback.
“You know, only a career politician would call an FBI agent who’s spent their career arresting politicians an ‘insider.’ You’ve got to be kidding me, Steve,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is going to be a theme that recurs over and over again — what I believe to be the polluted mindset of people that have been in politics far too long and are more concerned about partisanship than fixing problems.”
Stuff that matters
There was also some substantive policy discussion.
Both said they favor federal action to bring student loan interest rates close to zero and force colleges to control tuition hikes. Both criticized the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as unfair to American workers.
Asked about Obamacare, Santarsiero said he favors a government health care option to compete with private plans.
Fitzpatrick distinguished himself from many Republicans by saying he’d like to reform — not repeal — Obamacare, saying he favors market-based solutions.
Who’s your daddy?
Things heated up again when the candidates were asked about their parties’ presidential nominees.Santarsiero said he supports Hillary Clinton, citing her Senate career and bipartisan praise as secretary of state.
“And, on the other side, we have someone who didn’t even know that the Russians had taken Crimea, someone who has questioned whether we should support our NATO allies,” Santarsiero said. “Someone who has threatened to ban an entire group of people from entering the country based on their religion.”
“I fully acknowledge all the problems that Donald Trump has, and there are plenty, and that demonstrates my independence,” Fitzpatrick responded. “What Steve fails to do — [he] cannot bring himself to criticize Hillary Clinton. Be honest Steve. For once in your life, be independent. Strip yourself from your partisanship, serve your country.”
Throughout the exchange, Fitzpatrick never said whether he supported Trump
I tried to ask him afterward, but he wouldn’t answer the question and kept a brisk pace toward a waiting SUV.
“I’ve made it clear in my previous press statements,” he said before getting in the back seat and closing the door.
I didn’t know it when I asked, but, in a July press release, Fitzpatrick said he’d support his party’s nominee.
Like a lot of Republicans in competitive races, he doesn’t like saying it any more than he has to, especially into a microphone.
The debate was moderated by Bucks County Community College history and government professor Bill Pezza, who’ll do it again at the only other debate scheduled so far. It’s Oct. 13 at the college’s Lower Bucks campus at 12:15 p.m.
You can hear Tuesday’s debate in its entirety at the WBCB website.
My warm thanks to program director Sean Lerman for providing an audio copy of the debate so I could prepare my radio piece with some lively excerpts.