DANVERS — If “spirited” could describe last night’s debate between John Tierney, Richard Tisei and Daniel Fishman, then “tame” may as well be the adjective used to describe the 6th Congressional District race to this point.
Last night was raucous.
Moderator David Olson, editor of The Salem News, struggled to control the crowd inside the auditorium at Danvers High School, as boos, shouts, insults, jeers and cheers were hurled up toward the stage with vigor and sometimes genuine anger.
Fittingly, the subject that drew the most ire — from the crowd and candidates — was the tenor of the campaign itself, which has seen millions spent on sometimes malicious negative advertising and personal attacks.
“I am disappointed the tone has turned out to be what it is. I have always run positive campaigns, and everything I am responsible for I have tried to be positive,” Tisei said. “Some of the ads Tierney has run are over-the-top. ... I must be the only person in the country who is pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, who did not sign the Grover Norquist tax pledge to be attacked and labeled an extremist. ... It speaks more about the congressman’s credibility than mine.”
Tierney and the Democratic Party have launched ads calling Tisei a right-wing extremist, while Republican super PACs, and the Young Gun Network in particular, have been relentless in attacking the congressman about the illegal offshore gambling enterprise that ultimately sent his wife and brother-in-law to jail, while another brother-in-law remains a fugitive.
“Let’s be perfectly clear on one thing: Richard Tisei is responsible for all of the ads of the Young Guns and the right-wing extremists,” Tierney retorted, adding that Tisei would not agree to a campaign pact barring outside money. “You wouldn’t because you know you went down to Washington and asked them to run strategy for your campaign and took $3 million of their money to run the sleaziest and misleading advertising campaigns.”
As he has for months, Tierney continued to try to link Tisei with the right wing of the Republican party.
“In order not to talk about that issue, you went out and attacked my wife and her family as a way to get to me,” Tierney said. “If the issues were discussed, people would know you stood with the extremist Republican party.”
Tisei’s rebuke was short and to the point.
“What you just heard from Congressman Tierney is exactly what the problem in this country is,” Tisei said, hitting on a well-trodden campaign message that he would be a bipartisan and independent voice, in contrast to Tierney. “He is the most partisan Democrat in the entire country.”
Tierney, a Salem Democrat seeking a ninth term in Congress, and Tisei, a Wakefield Republican who served 26 years in the Statehouse, are locked in a dead heat in one of the closest and closely watched House campaigns in the country.
The debate, sponsored by The Salem News and The Jewish Journal, also touched on jobs, the economy, U.S. relations with Israel, health care and more.
Both Tierney and Tisei agreed that Israel has a right to protect itself, but neither took a firm stance on whether the United States should go to war with Iran to keep that country from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
On the economy, Tisei blamed instability in Washington for the slow recovery, asserting that small businesses are afraid to hire because of uncertainty about what tax rates or new regulations are coming down the pike. He also skewered Tierney on a 2.3 percent medical device tax, which the congressman voted for as part of the Affordable Care Act, claiming it has led to North Shore companies considering “a hiring freeze and laying off people.”
Tierney blasted House Republicans for not passing President Barack Obama’s jobs act, which he said would have put firefighters, teachers and others back to work, and for not considering the Democrat proposals to increase funding for infrastructure projects that would boost private sector employment.
Throughout the campaign, both candidates have criticized hyperpartisanship in Washington, and that continued last night.
Tisei, who has argued that his record of bipartisanship would help abate the dysfunction on Capitol Hill, named his proudest moment as the formation of the coalition, Democrats for Tisei, which, he said, “made me feel good to know that people of the opposing party ... felt comfortable and confident enough in me that they came out to support me.”
Tierney has claimed that a Tisei victory would further enable Republicans to pass an agenda he has described as anti-women, anti-Medicare and anti-middle class.
When Tisei claimed he believed in government’s role to protect the needy and would protect programs, Tierney bristled.
“It’s funny to hear that because Mr. Tisei is going to go down (to Washington) to support the exact party who don’t believe in government, wants to shrink government and drown it in the bathtub, and let Medicare wither on the vine,” Tierney said.
Tisei said he was “proud to vote in favor of health care reform in Massachusetts,” but criticized the Affordable Care Act and wants it repealed. The state plan was only a small fraction as long, had no tax hikes — the federal plan has 21 — and kept the existing health system intact, unlike the federal plan, which changes the relationship between doctors and patients, Tisei said.
States should “come up with their own plan,” Tisei said.
Tierney defended the Democrat’s signature health bill, by saying there is no way to make insurers cover pre-existing conditions and eliminate lifetime caps without a mandate for individuals to be insured. He also blasted Tisei, aligning him this time with Mitt Romney, who signed the Massachusetts health law and also wants to repeal the federal law.
“You said Massachusetts was a great model for the nation, it turns out you were right,” Tierney said, turning to Tisei. “Now, like a mini-me Mitt Romney, when the tea party came to power, you turned around and said it wasn’t a good idea for the country.”
Daniel Fishman, articulate and deftly steering out of the crossfire, advocated his Libertarian views of limited government, individual and state rights, fiscal conservatism, and his plan to “eliminate barriers” to employment by allowing businesses to hire their first three employees without all the red tape slowing down the process.
Fishman, perhaps sensing that many in the room were swayed, told voters to consider him, despite his long odds.
“Your vote counts and has to count for what you believe in. Vote for someone you like, vote your conscience,” he said. “If what I said appeals to you and you don’t vote for me, the message that gets sent is these ideals appeal to nobody.”