Some 200 people packed the West Whiteland Township building in Chester County Sunday afternoon to hear U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R, Pa.) debate his Democratic challenger, Manan Trivedi, in their first of two debates.
Although instructed to remain silent during the debate, audience members cheered and booed with relish as the candidates sparred over health care, tax cuts and the influence of money in politics.
No issue brought more racket than health care, an issue that pit the two on starkly opposing sides. Gerlach, 55, a four-term incumbent from Chester Springs, said he would repeal and replace the health care bill, drawing loud applause and howls of booing.
"It's a bad bill, ladies and gentleman," Gerlach said. "Five hundred billion dollars of tax increases on our business community, 20 new taxes that my opponent supports, $500 billion in cuts in Medicare to the seniors that can't stand that reduction in Medicare benefits today."
Gerlach said he supports a health care bill that incorporates "consumer-based and market-based approaches," that allow employers to cross state lines to purchase health care for their employees. Tort reform must be part of the package, he said.
Trivedi, 36, a physician and Iraq war veteran from Birdsboro, Berks County, injected some levity before returning fire.
"Glad to see no one's emotional about this issue," he said, as the crowd laughed.
"This bill, while far from perfect, everyone agrees, is a step in the right direction," Trivedi said. "If we repeal health care, if you had the word cancer in your chart five years ago or any other preexisting condition, they can deny you coverage."
He added, "Health care should be about patients, not about profits. Health care should be about making everybody better and covering us all."
The two candidates are locked in a race typically won by the narrowest of margins. The sprawling Sixth Congressional District stretches from Bryn Mawr to Reading, taking in parts of Montgomery, Chester, Berks and Lehigh counties.
As a Republican incumbent in a year expected to favor the GOP, Gerlach has adopted the front-runner perch, and his campaign has portrayed Trivedi as an ultraliberal who is out of step with district voters.
Trivedi, a political neophyte, has taken a populist tone, criticizing Gerlach for "Beltway syndrome," or losing touch with voters after his many years in politics.
Both candidates gave detailed answers to questions that ranged from tax cuts and immigration to abortion and gay rights. On nearly every issue, the candidates stood apart.
Gerlach said he supports extending the Bush tax cuts to all, including those who make more than $250,000 annually. Trivedi supports repealing the tax break to that highest income bracket.
Trivedi supports abortion rights and repealing the so-called "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy for gay service members in the military. Gerlach said he opposes abortion except in the case of rape, incest or if the mother's health is threatened. He said he would wait for the results of a study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates before he renders his verdict on "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
Trivedi criticized Gerlach for voting against the closure of a loophole that grants tax relief to companies that take jobs overseas.
"I don't understand, especially now in this day and age when we're losing jobs, why we would give corporations tax breaks to send jobs overseas," Trivedi said. "This is a no-brainer, this makes sense to any reasonable American."
Gerlach said he has voted against "job-crushing" bills put forth by the Democratic Congress. He voted against bills that would have closed the tax loophole because they included new taxes, he said.
"I do support that, but our problem with keeping jobs here in this country is not just subject to that one particular provision in our tax code," he said. "Congress has to put forward a positive proactive jobs policy that lowers taxes across the board for our job creators and takes regulatory burdens off their backs and shoulders, and also increases the amount of credit that's available right now in our economy."
Before the debate even began, there was a dustup over press coverage. The League of Women Voters, who hosted the event, did not allow video or audio of the event at the request of the Gerlach campaign, said Barbara Dewilde, a director of the League of Women Voters in Chester County. The Trivedi campaign said it had no problem with recording of the event.
During the debate, a Gerlach campaign spokesman asked a WHYY reporter to turn off an audio recorder.
When asked why the campaign did not allow recording, the spokesman, Gregory Francis, said, "We didn't see a benefit for us."
Later, another Gerlach spokesman called to clarify, saying the congressman's campaign never intended to prevent press coverage of the event, but had asked that neither campaign record the event. He called it a mix up.
The two candidates will meet again at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday for their last scheduled debate at the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Montgomery County.