The first debate between 8th Congressional District candidates could be viewed primarily as a warmup for Republican Brian Fitzpatrick and Democrat Steve Santarsiero, though the conversation did flare up at times.
The candidates met face-to-face in the Levittown studios of the WBCB 1490-AM radio station. Their hour-long discussion focused on the global economy, the presidential race, income inequality, college tuition, international trade, foreign policy and healthcare.
Topical issues like gun control, immigration and gender and racial equality were left off the table by moderator Bill Pezza, a professor of history and government at Bucks County Community College, because of time restrictions.
Santarsiero opened by laying out a platform built on strengthening the economy and protecting the nation from foreign threats. He also said that regardless of the outcome of the race, he will remain a Bucks County resident. The remark was a veiled slight at Fitzpatrick, who grew up in the district but moved back home several months ago after working as an FBI special agent in New York and Southern California, in hopes of replacing his brother Mike Fitzpatrick, the current 8th District congressman.
In his opening, Fitzpatrick abstracted himself from the Republican Party, saying, “I’m not going to call myself a partisan candidate. I’m going to say I’m a candidate for Congress to represent all the people here.”
He also mentioned that he, unlike Santarsiero, who has lived in Bucks County for the past 21 years, was born and raised in the district. Fitzpatrick said working for the FBI in counter-terrorism and anti-corruption gave him a unique perspective on national issues and positioned himself as a political outsider, having never held political office.
This positioning did not sit well with Santarsiero, a four-term state representative in the Pennsylvania House. He alleged Fitzpatrick was able to enter into the race because of his brother’s influence.
“Brian claims that he’s the ultimate outsider. The fact of the matter is that he’s the ultimate insider,” Santarsiero said. “No one else would have been able to parachute into this district just eight months ago and suddenly become the Republican nominee for Congress.”
Fitzpatrick responded by calling this the “ultimate insult to everybody who leaves their hometown to serve their country in any national security role.” He then hammered Santarsiero on his legislative record, noting that none of his authored bills became laws in Pennsylvania.
“That’s an embarrassment,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are freshman Democrats who passed bills in the House … you have no excuse.”
Things got chippy again when Pezza asked the candidates to speak about their respective parties’ presidential nominees.
Santarsiero answered first, spending most of the time criticizing Donald Trump. When pressed by Pezza to speak about concerns regarding the Clinton Foundation and the Democratic nominee’s email controversy, Santarsiero said, “Those issues have been hashed out in the press ad nauseum,” and reaffirmed his support for Clinton.
Fitzpatrick, who has been lukewarm in his support of the the Republican nominee, called Trump, “Essentially a third-party candidate running inside the Republican party” and “probably my last choice in the primary.” He positioned himself as able to criticize both nominees and asked Santarsiero to do the same by criticizing Clinton.
Fitzpatrick never overtly said he was voting for Trump during the debate, though pressed many times by Santarsiero. Santarsiero also never said anything negative about Clinton when pressed by Fitzpatrick. Pezza stepped in to stop the quarreling, but this issue will likely be revisited in future debates.
From there, tempers settled and the candidates did find common ground.
Both supported investing in education as a piece of the path to close the gap in income inequality, but differed on other aspects of the issue.
Santarsiero pointed to increasing the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure to create jobs and workforce development as solutions. Fitzpatrick said that job creation is more important than workforce development so that there are enough jobs for students coming out of college.
This brought on the issue of international trade agreements, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which both see as potentially harmful to the middle class.
“My fear is that there are not sufficient protections for American jobs,” Santarsiero said, suggesting that foreign trade partners should hold their companies to similar regulations on workplace safety and environmental protection as American companies.
“We’re not playing on a level playing field,” Fitzpatrick said. “The eleven other countries need to rise to our standards.”
He also mentioned how the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the free world, which incentivizes companies to invest elsewhere.
On health care, Fitzpatrick believes the Affordable Care Act should be “fixed, not repealed,” and called for out-of-state competition, portability from employer to employer and medical liability reform as a means of driving down prices.
Santarsiero supports the public option, believing a government-run health insurance agency would create competition and lower costs.
To deal with student loan debt, Fitzpatrick suggested that addressing the cost of college tuition and the rates of interest on debt is most important. He said that to address the cost, the government could tie federal funding to required audits of all universities and scrutinize tuition that is not directly tied to student education. As for loans, he supported subsidizing of loans to bring interest rates “as close to zero as possible.”
Santarsiero said that the federal government should work to give more funding to the states for education at state institutions, which would create more competition, and in turn lower the cost of private universities as well. He also supported lower interest rates, but saw that as secondary to lowering tuition costs.
In closing, Santarsiero focused on his public service as a teacher in the Bensalem School District, Lower Makefield supervisor and a state representative.
“It’s important that we have someone who is fighting for our communities,” he said. “I’ve had a record of doing that. I will continue to do that as a member of Congress.”
Fitzpatrick closed by saying that the United States needs a change of direction and touted his careers both as an FBI agent and certified public accountant as experience enough to guide that direction.
“Our politicians have failed us,” he said. “The change that we need in this country has to come from outside the system.”