The candidates in the 6th Congressional District, on the North Shore — including Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tierney and his Republican rival, Richard Tisei — debated for the first time in Lynn Thursday.
The debate was contentious nearly from the start. Tierney's campaign had asked the organizers, CommonWealth magazine and moderator Bruce Mohl, not to allow direct questions between the candidates, but early and often Tierney then proceeded to address Tisei directly. For instance: when Tisei, a former state representative and state senator, talked about his ability to work with Democrats on Beacon Hill:
"I've been in the State House," Tisei said. "I've seen the way it works. It's very easy to sit down with somebody and work these problems out, but you have to be willing to put America first, and not enough people are doing that."
"Bruce, allow me to interject," Tierney said. "My opponent, Mr. Tisei, was the leader of the Senate Republicans. He voted with the Republicans 100 percent of the time. It's comical to listen to you start making that basis."
Tisei responded with humor. "Yeah, I was the leader, so I voted with myself 100 percent of the time," he said. "I guess that makes sense."
Tierney interrupted again after Tisei made a point about curbing the rising cost of college:
"I do think maybe tying federal aid to whether or not a university has a huge inflation rate makes a lot of sense," Tisei said.
"You know, I'm going to just ask to intercede here for a second," Tierney said. "State colleges are losing money from state to state. Gov. [Deval] Patrick has changed the dynamic on that, has actually started making more contributions to change that, but during the time that my opponent, Richard Tisei, was in the State House, all of the time since he was in college to almost presently, Massachusetts has been 47th in contributions on that."
The two sat on either side of a third candidate, Libertarian Daniel Fishman. At one point, he was asked how he would create jobs.
"The first thing I would do when I get to Congress is to propose a thing I'm calling the 'first three are free,' " Fishman said. "It's a libertarian idea. It says that the first three employees for any business, the employer does not have to do anything for them except write them a check. They're responsible as contractors to handle their own wages. If you can even get one-sixth of those businesses, three million people, to hire one employee, that's 1 percent of the population of the United States."
No one brought up the issue that has dominated the race — Tierney's denial that he knew anything about proceeds from illegal gambling that found their way into a bank account his wife, Patrice, was handling for a brother. Tierney's wife pleaded guilty to willful blindness about the funds.
After the debate, Tisei was asked why he didn't bring up the gambling money.
"It wasn't asked, and given that the format was changed so it couldn't come up, I wasn't about to bring it up myself," Tisei said. He did suggest that Tierney return the money.
"Patrice received a gift from her relatives, and I think we made that very clear, and that's it," Tierney said. "There's never been any allegation against her for improperly taking money, or whatever, or her taxes; it was about her brother's business, actually, on that."
A WBUR poll conducted earlier this month found Tierney leading by seven points. But Tisei has been out-raising Tierney, and he's been doing it through individual contributions from people who live in Massachusetts.
Tierney's troubles and the groundswell of support for Tisei have made the national Republican Party see Tisei as their best chance to elect a Republican from Massachusetts.
This post was updated with the Morning Edition feature version.
This article was originally published on September 27, 2012.
This program aired on September 27, 2012.