Fitzpatrick says character and experience will win him 8th District seat, not family name

Like several of his GOP colleagues in Congress, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks, is trying to maintain some distance from President Donald Trump. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Like several of his GOP colleagues in Congress, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks, is trying to maintain some distance from President Donald Trump. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This is the first in a two-part series on the race for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District seat. Tomorrow, we’ll focus on Democratic candidate Steve Santarsiero and spending in the race.

Incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick won three of the last five congressional elections in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, which covers all of Bucks and a portion of Montgomery County.

Now, his brother and former FBI agent Brian Fitzpatrick is running to take over the seat in January.

Throughout the campaign, Democrats — including Fitzpatrick’s opponent Steve Santarsiero — have assailed the Republican Party for trading on a family name.

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“If his name were not Brian Fitzpatrick, if it were Brian Wilson, he’d still be living in a beach house in California,” said Santarsiero during an Oct. 13 debate.

In an interview, Fitzpatrick insisted the connection doesn’t matter, defining his character as that of a political “outsider” based on his career choices — and not his relationships.

“I don’t think that’s really relevant,” he said. “Mike and I took very different paths. He took the local government path, and I took the security path.”

Still, having a “Fitzpatrick” in various Bucks County offices for the last 20 years can’t hurt his chances or name recognition.

National security credentials

On the campaign trail, Brian Fitzpatrick runs hardest on his national security and law enforcement experience. As a former special supervisory agent with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said his familiarity with security issues will help him craft better federal policy.

“The policy side of counterterrorism, of counterintelligence, of cybersecurity, of border security, of immigration reform … are all components of national security,” he said. “What better way to make policy than to have actually experienced it and done it?”

On the stump, Fitzpatrick touts his career experience as pertinent to issues ranging from economics to immigration to government integrity.

Prior to joining law enforcement, Fitzpatrick, who is in his early 40s, trained as an accountant and lawyer. He graduated from the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia, in 2003 and was first assigned to Manhattan.

While the FBI is not forthcoming about its agents’ activities, Fitzpatrick gave some concrete examples from his 13 years with the bureau.

In New York, he helped investigate an anti-corruption case, “Operation City Lights,” targeting New York state lawmakers and labor leaders accused of bid-rigging. Fitzpatrick also said he spent three or four months in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 as part of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” interviewing al-Qaida members.

In response to allegations that he moved back to the 8th District just to run for office, Fitzpatrick’s campaign has said he maintained a residence in Bucks County during all but six years of his life.

A pitch for zero-based budgeting

Besides security, Republican leaders in Bucks County said voters care most about one thing: taxes.

Like many Republicans, Fitzpatrick rails against ballooning national debt and how Congress spends money. To change that, he said, the government needs to make some big shifts.

“Zero-based budgeting is something that can be used, part and parcel, with a balanced-budget amendment” as a way to close the deficit, he said. “When you balance the books, you create jobs.”

In recent years, the Senate has taken up various balanced-budget amendments, which would require the U.S. to spend only what it takes in during a given year, with exceptions for catastrophic events. The amendments sometimes propose restrictions on raising taxes.

So far, these amendments have not come close to passing, and critics say they would limit the federal government’s ability to stimulate the economy through spending during periods such as the Great Recession.

As for zero-based budgeting, President Jimmy Carter tried the policy back in the 1970s, first in Georgia and later at the federal level. He ended up ditching the approach, which requires each department to start with a budget of zero dollars and justify every expense each year. Recently, some states have adopted diluted and incremental versions of of the practice to try to reduce costs.

As for non-economic issues, Fitzpatrick has taken somewhat moderate stances. He supports same-sex marriage and protecting the environment. During a debate early in his campaign, however, Fitzpatrick said he would vote to defund Planned Parenthood.

Anyone’s race

In the last few weeks, the 8th District race has tightened; observers say the seat is within reach for either candidate.

At a recent debate in Doylestown, Bucks County Community College student and third-party enthusiast Noor Takiedine said he’s impressed by the level of conversation at the local level.

“They were good, they were better than the [presidential] debates,” he said. “I actually thought Brian Fitzpatrick did better or equal to Steve [Santarsiero], however when he brought up the Israel part, I kinda disagreed.”

“The Israel part” was Fitzpatrick touting Israel’s use of surveillance and a fence in the West Bank. He said the U.S. should look to the Middle Eastern country when thinking about security at its southern border.

Takiedine, who supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, said he’s still undecided on which congressional candidate will get his vote.

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