In their final extended matchup of the campaign, Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District candidates Sean Bielat, a Republican, and Democrat Joseph Kennedy III disagreed Monday night over taxes, social welfare and experience.
In a district where independent voters outnumber both Democrats and Republicans, each candidate was intent on painting the other as beholden to party orthodoxy. Kennedy started things off by trying to link Bielat to the budget of Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan's changes in social welfare programs are a non-starter for many Democrats.
"Sean has endorsed the plan authored by Paul Ryan and the Ryan budget. And that makes some drastic cuts to some baseline programs and offers huge tax breaks to the wealthiest," Kennedy said. "So that's really one area where he and I disagree."
Before an audience at Wellesley College of more than a thousand — mostly students and mostly Kennedy supporters — Bielat fought back.
"You heard a minute ago and you'll hear 15 more times tonight about Sean Bielat endorses the Paul Ryan budget," Bielat said. "That's a little bit debatable at best. Here's the thing: We have a hundred page piece of... not even legislation. A hundred-page philosophy on what we can do about the debt and the deficit going forward. I think it's a great starting point."
Over the course of the debate and in remarks afterwards, Bielat voiced his support for several mainstream GOP positions. He called for broad tax relief and repealing the Affordable Care Act. When Kennedy advocated stricter gun controls, including closing the so-called gun show exemption, Bielat said the solution was better enforcement, not more laws. Where Kennedy voiced support for teacher unions, Bielat criticized them, and called for more school choice.
But Bielat also said he refused the no-tax pledge activist Grover Norquist asked him to make, and said his party is too swift to support the use of force abroad. In response to an audience question, Bielat insisted that it was Kennedy, not he, who was toeing the party line.
"Nancy Pelosi has been doing fundraisers for Joe," Bielat said. "The talking points he uses are straight from the website. Listen to Obama, listen to the next [presidential] debate, you'll hear the Paul Ryan this, Paul Ryan that."
Kennedy said he was no lock-step Democrat -– naming Republican members of Congress he agrees with on issues like marriage equality or boosting research and development funding.
"Representative Latham from Iowa — big proponent of the production tax credit for wind," Kennedy said. "Eighty-one percent of all wind capacity is in Republican districts. Right? This is a tremendous opportunity for bipartisanship."
The most contentious part of the debate was sparked by audience member, Roy Switzler.
"If your name were Joseph Patrick, Mr. Kennedy, and not Joseph Patrick Kennedy, based on your life experiences, would not your campaign be a joke?" Switzer asked. That drew audience boos, which League of Women Voters moderator Jo-Ann Berry quieted.
Bielat said that he did not consider Kennedy's campaign a joke, but the Marine reservist and businessman criticized Kennedy for being inexperienced and over-reliant on his family's political legacy. Kennedy stood on his history as a prosecutor and Peace Corps worker and pointed out that both candidates are still in their 30s.