Candidates clash in final minutes of PA-8 debate

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Matt Schickling / Wire photo

Candidates for the 8th Congressional District kept it cordial until the final minutes of Thursday’s debate, then things got heated after a Beach Boys-themed slight.

Held at the Bucks County Community College Lower Bucks campus in Bristol Township, the debate lasted just over an hour and centered on issues of national security, international trade, healthcare, infrastructure, the economy and partisan gridlock, much of which was discussed in their previous debate.

While the Democrat, state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, and Republican Brian Fitzpatrick hit similar notes on many of those issues — “Sounds like Steve read a lot of that on my website,” Fitzpatrick quipped at one point — they disagreed on the concept of a political outsider.

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Matt Schickling / Wire photo – Democratic candidate state Rep. Steve Santarsiero. 

“My opponent is as much of an insider as anybody else. He wouldn’t be running in this race if he were not,” Santarsiero said in reference to Fitzpatrick’s brother, Mike, being the current 8th District congressman. “If his name were not Brian Fitzpatrick, say it was Brian Wilson, he’d still be living in a beach house in California.”

Fitzpatrick, who worked as an FBI agent before his candidacy, fired back.

“That’s unfortunate, Steve, and I will say that there’s only one candidate on this stage who’s put their life on the line for their country, and it’s not you,” Fitzpatrick said, which got some applause from his supporters in the audience. “It is highly insulting to criticize someone who leaves their hometown to serve their country.”

Fitzpatrick grew up in the district, but lived elsewhere during his tenure with the FBI, working in counter-terrorism and anti-corruption. He moved back into Bucks County just before his campaign began. Santarsiero is a four-term representative in the state House, and has lived in the district for over 20 years.

Santarsiero answered, saying the criticism was not meant for his service, but for “being connected” politically via his brother, which he alleged made Fitzpatrick able to enter Republican primary immediately as a front-runner.

“You can say just about anything as a candidate, but what matters is what you’ve done,” Santarsiero said.

Santarsiero also brought up the Republican nominee for president multiple times without being prompted by moderator Bill Pezza, a professor of history and government at the college. Until a statement released on Saturday, Fitzpatrick was on record saying he would vote for Donald Trump.

“I have been frustrated by this presidential campaign because neither shares our values,”

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Matt Schickling / Wire photo – Republican candidate Brian Fitzpatrick.

his statement read. “I have refused to endorse either candidate, and reached the point that I cannot vote for either candidate.”

The statement was released on the heels of the surfacing of a 2005 recording of Trump making lewd comments about women.

“I don’t think the revelations of last Friday were necessary for us to understand that Donald Trump is uniquely unfit to have that responsibility,” Santarsiero said

Many of Pezza’s questions centered on national security, Fitzpatrick’s wheelhouse as someone who has been “behind the curtain” in terrorism investigations, though the two did not necessarily disagree on the issue of foreign threats.

Santarsiero focused on building strong relationships with “communities where potential terrorists may be coming from” and “not demonizing Muslim-Americans.” He also mentioned having “the best screening process” for people coming into the country, and making sure that European countries do the same.

Fitzpatrick’s attention landed on cutting off international money laundering that funds terrorist operations and using the United States’ leverage as an international trade power to get countries who fund these operations to work with international law enforcement.

“If you cut their funding off, you cut the head off of the snake,” Fitzpatrick said.

The two agreed that the nation needs to make infrastructure a priority, but disagreed on how to fund it.

Santarsiero discussed taking bonds to fund infrastructure. Large-scale infrastructure improvements would create jobs and grow the economy, he said.

“I want to grow our way out, and Steve wants to add debt to solve the problem,” Fitzpatrick said, preferring to grow the economy before more funding is feasible.

“For decades, we funded projects like this with bond issues, Republicans and Democrats have done that,” Santarsiero said. “Just saying that it’s going to happen through growing the economy is non-answer.”

After the debate, the candidates were given the opportunity to speak directly to the press in a separate room. Fitzpatrick was unavailable due to schedule restrictions, and Santarsiero was able to speak about issues he felt weren’t given enough attention in the debate, like his support of Planned Parenthood, environmental protection, gun safety legislation and the presidential election, including his thoughts on his party’s choice.

“Hillary Clinton is not a perfect candidate. She did make a mistake with those emails, she’s admitted that,” Santarsiero said. “There is a world of difference between her and Donald Trump … a man who I believe is unfit to be president.”

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