Candidates for Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District debated each other from the PBS39 studios in Bethlehem.
Three men looking to represent much of the Lehigh Valley in Congress clashed Tuesday night over term limits and bringing home federal dollars through earmarks.
During a debate broadcast live from WLVT-PBS39 studios in Bethlehem, the candidates for Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District had some of their more impassioned exchanges over topics from how a nuclear war with China might shake out to how important the job of a congressman is.
Taking part in the forum were incumbent U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican; Democrat Rick Daugherty; and Paul Rizzo, a Libertarian.
Two of the candidates aired who they’re backing for president, while Dent reiterated his stance revealed in spring that he’s not backing party-mate Donald Trump.
“I’m like many millions of Americans right now who are very dissatisfied with the choices we have for president of the United States,” Dent said. “In the nation we have more than 300 million people. We certainly can do better than this.”
Dent, a 56-year-old married father of three from Allentown, said he’s considering a number of names to write in on Election Day, Nov. 8.
Daugherty, who is 55 and an unmarried father of three from Lowhill Township in Lehigh County, said he’s voting for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“The reason I’m running for Congress is because I’m very concerned about our trade policies that I think have been a disaster,” he said, “and I look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to reverse the trade policies that we have in place now … .”
Rizzo, a 42-year-old married father of two from Hanover Township, Northampton County, said he’s backing the Libertarian slate of Gary Johnson for president and running mate Bill Weld, who are past governors of New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively.
Rizzo called them the “best choice for America right now.”
Tuesday’s debate featured a question about climate change, a topic that some voters believe saw short shrift during Sunday night’s debate between Trump and Clinton. Christopher Borick, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, asked about policies the candidates support to reduce greenhouse gases.
Dent called for the marketplace to develop cost-effective renewable resources.
“But in the meantime we are going to have to accept the reality that we are going to have to drill for gas in this country, which has a lower carbon footprint, half that of coal and oil,” he said, stating his support for hydraulic fracturing, the controversial practice of injecting chemical-laden water and sand deep underground to free natural gas.
Daugherty called, in part, for a focus on renewables such as solar and wind.
“I believe we should take a second look at nuclear energy and we have to keep in mind that whenever we close a factory here, whether it’s a steel plant or a cement plant or any type of a manufacturing plant and it ends up in China, the level of pollution there is 10 times worse than we would ever do,” he said.
Rizzo, similarly, pointed to the refusal of some Asian countries to sign on to binding targets for emissions in the Kyoto Protocol.
“I do believe we need to be good stewards and actually take care of the environment but it has to be fair across the board,” he said.
On term limits, Daugherty attacked Dent’s decades of holding office, beginning with his time in the state House and Senate prior to his 2004 election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Dent said he supports term limits at both the state and federal levels, but wouldn’t impose them “unilaterally.”
“I absolutely 100 percent support term limits,” Rizzo agreed. “I believe there are too many people who have been in politics way too long and they don’t represent us properly. One of the reasons I’m running is I would probably only be in office for one term and wouldn’t run again.”
Dent seized on commentary Daugherty has made calling the job of a congressman foolish, asking him to defend himself.
“I think what’s foolish about what congressmen do is they spend over half their time from the moment they get into Congress on the phone begging for cash,” Daugherty began.
“I don’t,” Dent interjected.
“Begging for cash, begging for cash,” the Democrat continued, adding later: “To me because you’re not doing the people’s business because what you’re doing is just focusing on getting re-elected.”
Daugherty repeatedly brought up Dent’s campaign spending in excess of $1 million in 2014 in a race that was uncontested at the state and federal levels.
Dent challenged Daugherty on claims it would be his lowest priority to return tax dollars to the district through earmarks. The incumbent pointed to an appropriations bill he worked on that recently passed and included money for a security perimeter fence at Fort Indiantown Gap within the sprawling 15th District, the Route 412 widening in Bethlehem and the American Parkway bridge in Allentown.
Daugherty tried to reiterate his mission to work on trade policies, as Dent interrupted him.
“He’s asking more questions again, I’m trying to give an answer. Can I give an answer? I think he’s asked about 50 questions,” Daugherty said. “So my answer is I’m going to look to bring projects back here, Charlie, but it’s not going to be priority because I’m not looking to make this a career.
“I’m not looking to have ribbon-cuttings and get my name in the paper so I can be in Congress for 10 or 15 years.”
Rizzo followed up by saying money budgeted for certain expenses should be spent that way, claiming that 25 percent of highway funding goes to projects unrelated to roads: “I think we need to basically make sure we’re good stewards with the money, have it come back to the congressional district and make sure it’s spent appropriately.”
The debate took a decidedly grim turn when Daugherty pressed Dent on a 2015 report to Congress about China that asserted the United States can’t defend against Chinese cyberattacks. The report said China believes it can withstand a nuclear strike and retaliate and “China soon will be able to knock out every satellite in every orbit.”
Moderator Laura McHugh threw the question first to Rizzo, who said United States debt held by China is a bigger problem “than any nuclear strike.”
“First I read lots of reports and I’ve not seen any one that any nation could withstand a major nuclear assault from this country,” Dent answered. “There are no winners in a nuclear war including the Chinese and that’s one thing we all want to avert. …
“I guarantee you that our nuclear arsenal would do damage anywhere if, heaven forbid, it were ever released. It’s a very serious matter and there are no winners and I can assure you that many millions of people would be killed.”
The 15th District covers Lehigh County; parts of Berks, Dauphin and Lebanon counties; and the following area of Northampton County: Bethlehem and the townships of Allen, Bushkill, East Allen, Hanover, Lehigh, Lower Nazareth, Lower Saucon, Moore, Plainfield (Belfast, Kesslersville and Plainfield Church districts), Upper Nazareth (Western) and Williams.
PBS39 says those who missed the hourlong debate will be able to view it on the station’s YouTube account.