Healthcare, immigration & more covered in congressional debate

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R) and Scott Wallace (D) went head-to-head ahead of the Nov. 6 election

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Discussing the important issues: On Thursday, Oct. 25, 1st District congressional candidates Scott Wallace (bottom) and Brian Fitzpatrick participated in an hour-long debate, which covered everything from healthcare to immigration. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTOS

For anyone who has turned on the television over the past few weeks, even for just 10 minutes, chances are high that at least one ad supporting or bashing Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and/or Scott Wallace filled the screen. As viewers, it’s hard to determine what’s real and fake from the information stated.

On Thursday, Oct. 25, the public was able to gain some clarity when both 1st District congressional candidates stood side-by-side at the Gene & Marlene Epstein Campus at Lower Bucks, located in Bristol. Moderated by Bill Pezza, founder of Bristol Borough Raising the Bar and American history and government professor at the college, the incumbent Fitzpatrick (Republican) and his opponent Wallace (Democrat) participated in an hour-long debate, which covered everything from healthcare to immigration.

After winning a coin toss, Wallace provided a two-minute opening statement, during which he reminisced on his family’s long political history. Despite being a Democrat, his ancestors served numerous Republican presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt. Back then, he said the main concern was solving big problems and focusing on science and facts — not party affiliation.

“Now why can’t we do that again today? Simply because politicians are for sale,” he said, adding that he promises to never take money from corporate organizations.

Fitzpatrick’s opening statement followed. He touched on his strong roots in Levittown, where he still resides today, and the difficult decision he made to leave his dream job as an FBI agent after 14 years. For him, the reason was simple.

“Like each and every one of you, I love my country and I wanted to offer a very unique voice for my country. As it turns out, I’m the only FBI agent in Congress,” he said. “And to stand for something different.”

The first of several questions, submitted by college faculty, staff and students, addressed a fundamental issue in our country — what has happened to us as a people? How did we get to a place where a president can speak approvingly about body slamming a reporter, where protests can take place on an elected official’s lawn? How do we get back to civility?

“I think there is a path back and it starts at the top,” said Wallace, who expressed his wish to “rein in” some of the country’s leaders.

Wallace said he doesn’t think inflammatory rhetoric is acceptable, and said the focus should be on working together to solve problems.

“You find consensus by looking at facts and science and costs and benefits, talking to real people about their problems, and then we come together around a solution,” he said.

The biggest issue, according to Fitzpatrick, is the way we talk to each other, something he’s addressed since last year.

“That’s everywhere from the kitchen table to the White House and everywhere in between. It’s each and every one of our responsibilities to make sure that we do that. It’s all about bipartisanship,” he said.

Rather than define himself solely as “Republican,” Fitzpatrick prefers to say he’s “American.” He mentioned a comment previously made to him by Wallace, who said they’re on two separate teams. In Fitzpatrick’s opinion, that’s exactly what’s wrong with the state of the country, and to help fix it, he formed the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

“We stand for what’s right. Every single successful relationship in our lives is a product of giving and taking, learning what you don’t know, and trying to extrapolate good ideas,” he said, adding that the caucus works to promote mutual respect between parties.

Though Wallace supports the idea of casting aside party labels and working together, he said it’s not possible.

“Unfortunately that atmosphere does not prevail today. My esteemed opponent voted for Paul Ryan as Speaker. It was Republican,” Wallace said.

“You’ve criticized me in the past. You say Brian never uses the word ‘Republican,’” Fitzpatrick fired back. “We need that kind of civility and we committed in the Problem Solvers Caucus to a gridlock package where we’re only going to support a speaker that supports those changes.”

The second question focused on healthcare. Fitzpatrick stressed how he voted against multiple attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act because the legislation proposed was significantly worse. His caucus penned a bipartisan solution, which would repeal the 2.3 percent medical device tax, and get out-of-control lawsuits under control. Currently, he said there are no caps on noneconomic damages, a system that wreaks havoc on physicians when they have to get medical malpractice insurance, which is a cost that’s pushed onto patients.

Wallace wouldn’t have voted for the tax bill that repealed the individual mandate, which he said removes 13 million people from the insurance pool and drives up costs for everyone. Fitzpatrick said Wallace supports “Medicare for all,” which he explained kicks everybody off employer-based healthcare. In his opinion, the old individual mandate “was not a mandate” — 10 years after the passage of the ACA, 3 million people were still uninsured, and 80 percent of the people who paid the mandate earned less than $50,000 annually.

“If everybody is covered, then everybody’s premium goes down,” Wallace said in his defense.

“Single pay should scare everybody,” Fitzpatrick said.

Regarding the topic of the booming economy and record-low unemployment rates, Wallace explained how trillions of dollars of the recent tax cut went to billionaires, corporations and shareholders, 40 percent of which were foreign. He said he could think of better things to do with that money than “make foreign wealthy shareholders wealthier,” such as funding education, roads and jobs.

“He takes a question about the booming economy and he attacks the Republicans,” Fitzpatrick said. “The key to economic growth is always finding that point of equilibrium.”

He added how it’s a matter of finding a compromise and healthy balance on tax reform, workforce development and tax rates. At this point in the debate, Fitzpatrick called out Wallace for not submitting his tax returns.

“I’m not going to play these political stunts,” Wallace said.

But he wouldn’t let Wallace off the hook, going on to mention how he lives in a one-bedroom condo in the town he grew up, while Wallace has properties all over the world.

“He benefited from that old 1986 tax code, that 70,000-page monstrosity that was riddled with tax deductions and loopholes for the super rich. The only ones who could afford the sophisticated attorneys to navigate that were people like Scott,” Fitzpatrick said.

The discussion then turned to the issue of climate change, which Pezza said could become a life-threatening issue as early as 2030. Wallace explained how climate change has been the centerpiece of his work with the Wallace Global Fund for 15 years. He supports the transition from fossil fuel to clean energy, and a just transition for fossil fuel workers, which would include job retraining.

Fitzpatrick co authored a bill that would place a $24 per metric ton tax on carbon emissions, the funds of which would be used for clean transportation and infrastructure rebuild. He added that climate change isn’t just an economic issue — it’s a national security issue. Wallace agreed with this, stating how it would produce vast destabilization, migration of climate refugees and violent conflict.

“But the bill my distinguished colleague introduced is a joke,” Wallace said, adding that it was a “nice gesture,” but ExxonMobil proposed a similar idea that would tax $40.

The next portion of the debate covered the threat of cyberattacks, during which Fitzpatrick said he’s not satisfied with the country’s current security. Each Christmas, he visits troops to see firsthand where the problems lie.

“Cybersecurity issues are the biggest threats that we face in our country. I saw it in my 14 years with the FBI, I see it now as a member of the Homeland Security Committee. We are so far behind the curve on cybersecurity, we can’t even see the curve. There are countries that are way ahead of us,” he said. “People don’t talk about it because you can’t see it. But a significant cyber attack could cut a democracy off at its knees.”

Wallace expressed concern over a repeat of the “2016 election fiasco,” which he said the Trump administration still has yet to acknowledge. He added that he respects Fitzpatrick’s bipartisan caucus, but wishes he could get Ryan on board.

The candidates were then asked to express their thoughts on Saudi Arabia, which acts as a buffer for the U.S. against Iran and the Middle East, but uses supplied American weapons to wage war in Yemen. Rather than take away aid to such countries, Wallace proposed the U.S. provide educational and humanitarian support. Fitzpatrick, who served there, said he understands how deep-rooted their cultural beliefs are.

“Our first and foremost responsibility is to keep our people safe,” he said, adding that while the U.S. should have allies, it shouldn’t stand back while violence unfolds. “We need to shine a massive spotlight on it and we need to act accordingly.”

In a follow up statement, Wallace said the answer lies in a multilateral approach through the United Nations rather than entering into an alliance with a country like North Korea.

“What is this unquestioning embrace of the worst tyrants?” he asked. “I would be closer to our friends and more questioning of our adversaries.”

Diving deeper into the topic of foreign policies, Fitzpatrick said he supports Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (something presidents have avoided since 1948), and was opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump withdrew from earlier this year.

“It did not block the path to nuclear weapon. It paved the path to nuclear weapon. It injected 150 billion dollars into the Iranian economy in previously frozen assets and the lifting of sanctions continues to allow that economy to grow at 10 to 12 percent per year faster than it would otherwise,” he said.

In Wallace’s opinion, we’re not any safer than we were two years ago.

“This is a complete, chaotic, destabilizing policy that we are engaging in around the world,” he said, expressing his dissatisfaction with Trump’s deal with North Korea. “We gave them credibility and got nothing in return. Nobody knows what to expect anymore. Are we going to embrace this dictator or that dictator, are we going to shun our closest allies in Canada and throughout the European union? Nobody can count on us anymore.”

The finally question revolved around immigration. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants are living in the country — do the candidates support their path to citizenship?

“We cannot deport our way out of this problem. We tried this in the 1950s under President Eisenhower. It was a disaster both in terms of implementation but also human rights,” Wallace said, stating his support for comprehensive immigration reform, which the country hasn’t had since 1986.

Both Wallace and Fitzpatrick agreed that the Dreamers — those who came to the U.S. as children — should be protected. Fitzpatrick said Republicans and Democrats alike have been unsuccessful in properly handling immigration.

“Both parties have failed at this. The problem solvers are the only solution to this,” he said.

The two then had the opportunity to give closing statements. During Fitzpatrick’s, he drove home his mission of eliminating extremist attitudes.

“That’s what breaks my heart, is to see how people talk to each other, how people lead discussions with what party they’re from,” he said, stressing that the bipartisan model is the only way the country is going to survive.

Wallace acknowledged the fact that he and Fitzpatrick have strikingly different beliefs when it comes to gun control, healthcare and tax policy. But he said there’s something even bigger on the ballot.

“Do we value a free press? Do we value truth? Do we value facts? Do we value the rule of law?” he asked. “Those things are on the ballot. That’s why I’m running. I’ve never run for anything before. The soul of America is at stake in this election.” ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com