Candidates in the Massachusetts 6th District congressional race -- U.S. Rep. John Tierney (D-Salem), Republican Richard Tisei and Libertarian Daniel Fishman -- gathered at North Andover High School to debate issues relating to small business and job growth.
Hosted by the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Chairman Sal Lupoli, the debate lasted about an hour and focused and - in what may at this point seem like a surprise - focused on policy issues instead of personal issues. Tierney's wife Patrice and her family legal issues were not even mentioned.
Tierney faces an intense battle for reelection, as many polls have showed Tisei either ahead of him or surging upward. And Fishman has worked tirelessly to position himself as a viable alternative to both of them.
Fishman managed to do just that during the debate, with outside-the-box policy ideas that seemed to excite some in the crowd and baffle others.
The first question was about the nation's energy policy. Tisei promoted more domestic energy production and said he was shocked that the Keystone pipeline wasn't approved.
Tierney focused on price gouging and energy speculation. He cited a study that went before Congress that claimed the nation would save 60 cents per gallon on oil if oil speculators were taken out of the equation.
"If you take the speculators out, the estimates of all the experts who've been testifying in front of us is that you'd cut at least 60 cents a gallon, and that's a good start," Tierney said.
Tierney also emphasized eco-friendly "green" renewable energy production, citing the Green Jobs Act investing in development of renewable energy.
Fishman wants to take the government out of energy pricing completely. And he actually focused on how little we pay for gas, not how much.
"Anybody who's got relatives anywhere else in the world knows that we've been paying a lot less for gasoline because we have been subsidizing it with our tax money, by giving tax breaks, enormous tax breaks, billions of dollars in oil subsidies," Fishman said. "We have been playing favorites."
The next part of the debate focused on health care, primarily how to control costs.
Fishman attacked the Affordable Care Act - often known as Obamacae - as part of the problem and attacked the law on the basis of federal intrusion on states.
"In our state, it made sense, but Massachusetts is nothing like Mississippi," Fishman said, adding that the federal government had no right mandating what every state must do to provide health care to residents. "We have to recognize the fact that the Affordable Care Act is unpopular in other places."
Tierney praised the Affordable Care Act and said it would help control costs.
"It hasn't even fully kicked in yet, so a lot of people are complaining about a bill that hasn't fully taken effect," he said. "And one of the things that's going to happen when the exchanges kick in is businesses are going to be able to shop for the best plan, the best plan on price, the best plan on quality."
Tisei defended his support of Massachusetts health care reform -- which was the basis for the Affordable Care Act -- but said the idea does not make sense on the federal level and that each state should design its own health care reform.
"We had a very unique situation here in Massachusetts when we put our bill together," Tisei said. "We had 92 percent of the people who were already insured and our goal was to get to 100 percent. And we were able to do that in Massachusetts by designing a system, going to the federal government and asking for a special waiver so we would receive additional money so we could fund our system. I think every other state should be given that opportunity."
The national unemployment rate is still high, and job growth was another focal point of Wednesday's debate. The candidates were asked how they would specifically deal with the nation's jobs crisis.
Tierney pointed out the job gains in the past few years. In almost every month since 2009, private sector jobs numbers have grown.
"We've been doing things, in the last 31 months we've created private sector jobs every month in last 31 months, because we've been making investments in this district, in this state, in this country," Tierney said. He pointed to funding for infrastructure projects as well as aid to states to keep public workers employed.
Tisei said a major cause of the jobs crisis was tax burden. He cited various taxes -- including the capital gains tax and estate tax and the medical devise tax that comes with the Affordable Care Act -- and said the unpredictability of the tax system is keeping business owners from hiring.
"The way to get this economy going again is to stop the bickering in Washington, get together, put a plan in place and allow the small business community to create jobs," Tisei said.
Fishman started his answer off by quoting another high-profile Libertarian.
"The Libertarian presidential candidate for president Gary Johnson said, 'My neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration.'"
Fishman touted his first legislative goal, which he calls "The First Three are Free." The plan would eliminate paperwork for new hires and have new employees essentially working as freelance contractors, and Fishman said that would create millions of jobs immediately.
On the issue of national debt and federal budget deficits, Tisei focused on spending and eliminating waste throughout government and reducing duplicate and overlapping agencies.
"A lot of people look at the federal government right now and they think the government is a big piece of meat and there's this big piece of fat that you can cut out," Tisei said. "But it doesn't work like that, the fat is marbled throughout all the meat."
Tierney called for a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases for wealthy Americans, eliminating dozens of deductions and loopholes as well as oil subsidies and imposing a yearly review of tax expenditures.
Fishman blamed the debt on a system in which people expect money from the federal government to address local issues. He used the Big Dig as an example.
"At the federal level, the spending has become so abstract that it doesn't matter to us anymore," Fishman said. He also called for a 22 percent national sales tax in place of income taxes as a way to get rid of all loopholes.
Closing statements seemed to focus on the glaring fact that parties in Washington don't get along.
Echoing his recent attack ads, Tierney said Tisei is "running as a Tea Party Republican..." but was cut off by booing from the audience. So he took aim at Tisei's record in the State Senate. "If anybody thinks that his going down there is going to change that then they haven't watched his ineffectiveness in the State House over 26 years."
Tisei responded by pointing out Tierney's voting record -- overwhelmingly with the Democratic leadership in Washington -- and promised to look at each bill individually and not follow the Republican leadership's orders.
"There are just too many people in Washington putting party before people," he said.
That discussion caused the one hostile encounter of the night. Tisei asked how many Republicans Tierney worked with on his ideas, and Tierney responded, "I couldn't find a Republican that wanted to cut a tax expenditure if my life depended on it."
The next congressional debate is slated to be televised on NECN Thursday night.