By Jesse Roman
---- — Despite focus this week on the candidates’ tax returns and Rep. John Tierney’s ongoing family woes, neither issue arose yesterday as Democrat Tierney, Republican Richard Tisei and Libertarian Daniel Fishman met in debate for the first time during this 6th Congressional District race.
That’s not to say there wasn’t drama in the packed gymnasium at North Shore Community College in Lynn.
Fishman, seated between Tierney and Tisei, was often caught in the middle as the bitter rivals exchanged fierce jabs, perpetuating what has been one of the ugliest campaigns in the country this year.
At one point, holding up a recent negative mailing that claimed Tisei would end Medicare, the Wakefield Republican vowed support for the program and said Tierney “should be ashamed for stooping to this level.”
Tierney quickly retorted, “Are you not ashamed?” referring to mailings and television ads funded by the Young Guns, a Republican super PAC, that have questioned Tierney’s integrity and even his manhood.
Moderator Bruce Mohl, editor of Commonwealth Magazine, asked the crowd at the onset to remain silent, which lasted a brief time before temptation prevailed and vigorous applause and jeers became commonplace.
Sticking with themes their campaigns have hammered throughout the year, Tierney repeatedly tried to tie Tisei to right-wing Republican ideology, while Tisei stressed his independence and bipartisanship and criticized Tierney’s record of voting with Democratic leaders “99 percent of the time.”
“I’ll stand on my own two feet” in Washington, Tisei said, noting that he voted with Republican Gov. Mitt Romney only about half the time as a state senator.
“It’s pretty strange that you took $3 million and still say you stand on your own two feet,” Tierney said, referring again to ad buys from the Republican super PAC. “When you take $3 million from them ... I’m pretty sure you’re in their debt.”
“John Tierney took $600,000 from every PAC in Washington, D.C. That’s who’s funding his campaign,” Tisei fired back.
When Tierney claimed that, as state Senate minority leader, Tisei voted with Republicans 100 percent of the time, Tisei’s response drew laughs when he pointed out that, “I was party leader, so I voted with myself 100 percent of the time.”
The debate, sponsored by Mass Inc.’s Commonwealth Magazine, was focused on the American dream and touched on a range of issues, including Medicare, education, taxes, health care, jobs, the economy, immigration and more.
The greatest threat to the American dream is “the increasing disparity of wealth and income,” said Tierney, who favors letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for incomes above $250,000.
Tisei said raising taxes on anyone in this economy is unwise, and he would instead focus on building the economy, noting that there are 23 million unemployed and underemployed Americans.
“The problem is there are no jobs being created that can support middle-class families,” he said, later adding that “small businesses need the confidence to expand and grow.”
Tisei criticized a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices — an important industry in the state and the North Shore — which, he said, has led to local hiring freezes and layoffs and which Tierney voted for as part of the Affordable Care Act.
“(Senate candidate) Elizabeth Warren says it’s a terrible tax. (U.S. Reps.) Niki Tsongas and William Keating are against it. But our own congressman is steadfast in his support of that tax,” Tisei said. “Repealing it is the first thing I’ll do in Congress.”
Tierney countered that the Massachusetts delegation worked to cut the tax in half, and that medical device manufacturers agreed to the tax as part of the Affordable Care Act and the expectation of dramatic sales increases as a consequence of more insured people.
“Saying that medical device companies wanted this tax is ludicrous,” Tisei said.
“They got 30 million new customers as a result,” Tierney fired back, adding that a Republican plan to eliminate the tax would result in 350,000 Americans going uninsured.
Asked about the looming sequestration and massive budget cuts that could occur in January as a result of last year’s debt ceiling compromise, both candidates again blamed congressional discord and argued they would be best suited to strike a deal to avoid harmful impacts.
“As a member of the majority, I’ll be in a better position to help,” Tisei said, pointing out there are currently no Massachusetts Republicans in the U.S. House. “It is important to have someone in the room from Massachusetts when the decisions are made.”
Tierney said sequestration “is a great examination of what happens when one party in congress is ideologically extreme,” and pointed out that Republicans overruled their own speaker’s compromise deal with President Barack Obama.
“In his first vote, his most important vote, Mr. Tisei will vote for that group, Paul Ryan and the Ryan budget, and the extreme ideologues in the party (to lead the House),” Tierney said.
On Medicare, Tierney hammered Tisei, saying he supports a voucher program that would force seniors to pay thousands out of pocket and that he would vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Tisei countered that Medicare would be bankrupt by 2024 if no changes are made, and any proposed changes would not affect people 55 and over.
“Only one person on this stage voted to cut Medicare, and that was John Tierney,” Tisei said, referring to a claim that the Affordable Care Act cut $716 billion from the program in the form of reimbursement rates to hospitals, nursing homes and doctors.
“That is the biggest lie of the century,” Tierney said.
With all the mudslinging, little-known third-party candidate Fishman may have appealed to some voters yesterday. Far from outmatched, Fishman was well-spoken and thoughtfully made the case for putting a self-described “common man” in Congress.
“I believe Congress can work together, but before that can happen, it needs to again be a government of the people for the people and by the people,” said Fishman, a software architect.
“I am an average guy running for office,” he continued later. “We need a voice that is not Republican, not Democrat, but for the people, and that voice needs to be heard now. Common sense requires common people.”