The candidates for the U.S. House in the Bucks County-based Eighth District finally squared off in a debate Tuesday, but sparred more over each other's qualifications than their political stances.
In their first debate, on WBCB-AM radio, Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat who has served eight years as a state representative in Harrisburg, and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent and the brother of incumbent Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, discussed issues including education, trade, and threats from North Korea.
Both said it was important for Congress to create jobs, relieve student debt, and make changes to the Affordable Care Act. Both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and call themselves environmentalists.
Santarsiero, a lawyer and former high school teacher, said improving workforce development, lowering interest rates on student loans, providing federal grants to states, and establishing a public health insurance option were important goals.
Fitzpatrick, who investigated public corruption as an FBI special agent, said he favors ending trade agreements, establishing a government program of loan assistance, and allowing competition in the health-care market.
The fiercely contested race for Pennsylvania's only wide-open U.S. House seat is in a closely divided Philadelphia suburban area that has in the past been a predictor of whether the state goes red or blue in the presidential race. This year, the Democrats are hoping to flip the seat.
Mike Fitzpatrick is retiring because of a self-imposed term limit.
His younger brother, who quit the FBI to run for the seat, has sought to paint himself as an outsider candidate because he is not a career politician. When he joined the race in late January, he was quickly anointed by the Bucks County Republican establishment, and the previous front-runner, State Rep. Scott Petri, dropped out of the race.
"The change that we need in this country has to come from outside the system," Fitzpatrick said Tuesday.
Santarsiero called him "the ultimate insider." Fitzpatrick called Santarsiero "delusional."
"You would not be running for Congress today if you didn't have connections," Santarsiero said. "Your brother is the congressman."
As of June 30, Santarsiero had raised more contributions, but Fitzpatrick out-raised him in the last two quarters and had $690,440 cash on hand to Santarsiero's $391,433.
Bill Pezza, a history and government professor at Bucks County Community College, moderated the debate. The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 13 at 12:15 p.m. at the Lower Bucks Campus of Bucks County Community College.