Fitzpatrick running as moderate, trying to hold onto Bucks seat for GOP

With millions of dollars pouring into the district, Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District race is one of the races to watch during the 2018 midterm elections.

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Left: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)
Right: Scott Wallace (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Left: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (AP Photo/Zach Gibson) Right: Scott Wallace (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

When I met U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick at his Capitol Hill office, I was surprised when the former FBI agent said we had to turn around and go do the interview outside.

Once we settled on a spot, his aide was then surprised that Fitzpatrick sent him away. But his office is a congressional office and his aide is an official aide and Fitzpatrick says he doesn’t want to blur the line between his campaign and official duties. His aide finally caught on as the congressman sent him back inside.

“I’m a former FBI agent,” Fitzpatrick said. “We do things by the book.”

Not many people in the nation’s capital do things by the book. The Bucks County Republican —who is running for a second term in one of the most hotly-contested districts in the country — has himself taken heat for sending mailers to constituents with his official budget that were likened to campaign materials. Washington is more hyper-partisan now than arguably any time in the nation’s history, except perhaps right around the Civil War. Knowing that, Fitzpatrick is still trying to present himself as a legislator who is right in the middle.

“I had to stave off a challenge from the right in the primary, because they claim I was not supportive enough of the president,” he said. “I get objection from the right and from the left because I’m a centrist. And when you get pushback from both sides in a district like Bucks County, you know that you’re exactly where you need to be.”

With millions of dollars pouring into the district and more expected to come from both sides, Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District race is one of the races to watch during these 2018 mid-term elections. And because it’s a district that went for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama while mostly choosing Republicans for Congress, both parties have reason to believe they can win this seat.

Fitzpatrick took over the seat in 2017 from his older brother, Mike, who represented the district for eight years before retiring. The younger Fitzpatrick is proud Georgetown University’s Lugar Center listed him as the most independent first-term lawmaker in the nation. That index looks at how often lawmakers’ bills attract bipartisan support and how often they sponsor legislation from the opposing party. Fitzpatrick is glad he’s at the top of his class.

“There’s no relationship in our lives whether personal, financial, professional, where you get everything you want all the time, nor should you. Everything we do in life should be a product of compromise and wanting to learn from other people, extract their good ideas, and try to see the world through their eyes,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick has had legislative success, too. He’s gotten his INTERDICT Act passed, which helps law enforcement stop illegal drugs coming in at the nations ports of entry. And he also got his ‘Right to Try’ legislation signed into law, allowing terminally-ill patients to access drugs not yet approved by the FDA.

But as the only former FBI agent in Congress, Fitzpatrick has drawn criticism for not standing up to President Trump enough on his repeated tirades against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Russia investigation, and even U.S. intelligence agencies themselves. Fitzpatrick serves on the Homeland Security Committee. When asked by WHYY, the top Democrat on that Committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, struggled to remember who he even is.

“He hasn’t distinguished himself on the committee,” Thompson said.

Still, Fitzpatrick has Democratic allies. He’s a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a 48-member group of Republicans and Democrats who try to avoid the headline-grabbing issues that divide the parties and focus on common ground. Democrat U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer from North Jersey is a co-chair of the caucus, and at a recent event with Fitzpatrick in Bucks County said he wants to see him win another term in D.C.

“I’m focused on making sure people like Brian Fitzpatrick are going to be in the Problem Solvers Caucus. I’m focused on what’s best for America, and less for what’s best for national party politics,” Gottheimer said.

His Democratic opponent, Scott Wallace, says Fitzpatrick is using that bipartisan caucus as a smokescreen. Wallace worked as a staffer in Washington on the Senate Judiciary and Veterans Affairs Committees during the Reagan era. He says Fitzpatrick is playing Washington games with voters.

“I know that there’s one word that you’ll never hear from Brian Fitzpatrick and that’s ‘Republican.’ And that’s why he likes to run around saying he’s going to be your independent voice in Congress,” Wallace said. “This is a very moderate district. Trump is not popular here. He knows that. But the bottom line is he is on Team Trump.”

While Fitzpatrick voted against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort, he supported the Republican tax overhaul that killed the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance mandate. Wallace says that’s not all.

“He voted for Speaker Ryan who controls the floor, who brings up bills that Trump wants and buries bills that Trump hates. He votes for the Trump agenda the vast majority of the time — about 85 percent. He voted for what Trump views as his proudest legislative accomplishment  the tax bill, which gives two trillion dollars in tax cuts to corporations and the rich to be paid for with huge cuts to programs for working America,” Wallace said.

Fitzpatrick says he wants to see some sort of health insurance mandate put back in place, but has no regrets on that tax vote.

“It’s hard to argue a success, right? You know, we went from 1.5, 1.6 growth in GDP to 2.7 last year and we’re going to be hovering around 3, if not exceeding 3 this year,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can’t argue with success. Some can say that’s a coincidence. I disagree.”

Even while discussing these votes and the Trump tax policy, Fitzpatrick avoids mentioning the president by name, or the Republican leadership in Washington.

And Fitzpatrick is now trying to double down on his promise to legislate from the middle if given the chance by voters.

“Scott Wallace wants to shrink the Problem Solvers Caucus. We want to expand it. We think that that’s the only hope for our country,” Fitzpatrick said.

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