NEEDHAM — Congressional candidate Sean Bielat calmly looked across the table to his opponent, Joseph P. Kennedy III, and matter-of-factly declared him unfit to be there.
“Other than fame that comes with your family, and the money that comes with it, you don’t have the background,” said Bielat, 37, a Republican, on Thursday, during the first debate between the nominees to replace retiring US Representative Barney Frank in the Fourth Congressional district.
Kennedy, a Democrat, shrugged off the notion that he is skating through the campaign on his family name.
“From day one, it has been my name on the ballot,” said Kennedy, a former Peace Corps volunteer and state prosecutor who turns 32 next week. “I’m proud of my record of public service.”
Bielat’s swipe at Kennedy’s resumé was the one aggressive moment during the 30-minute WCVB-TV 5 debate, which moved too swiftly to afford the candidates much opportunity to attack and parry. The debate, moderated by WCVB’s coanchor Ed Harding and political reporter Janet Wu, will be broadcast Sunday at 11 a.m.
For the bulk of the debate, the candidates agreeably disagreed on the hot button issues of the 2012 election cycle: the role of government in creating jobs, entitlement reform, and the right approach to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
Bielat, who lost a congressional race two years ago to Frank, is a Marine Corps Reserve officer who runs an online startup company. He appeared at ease in the informal debate format, with the candidates and moderators seated together at a table. Bielat stuck mostly to traditional conservative positions, such as supporting tax cuts to spur economic activity and standing in opposition to Roe v. Wade.
He accused the Obama administration of not confronting Iran strongly enough over its nuclear program.
“You use the threat of military force to avoid the need to use it,” said Bielat. “And we haven’t done that.”
Kennedy, the son of a former US representative and the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, sounded hoarse at times and coughed lightly during the debate. He mostly advanced positions in keeping with his family’s long and liberal political brand. He defended the role of government in creating jobs through programs that help entrepreneurs get access to capital and encourage an educated work force. He backs abortion rights. Asked specifically to name a Republican proposal he supports, Kennedy said he favors reducing the corporate tax rate by closing loopholes.
He endorsed President Obama’s pursuit of sanctions and diplomacy against Iran.
“There is still time to allow a diplomatic resolution to occur,” Kennedy said, though he would not rule out a US military attack. “The president has made clear a nuclear armed Iran cannot happen and will not occur.”
The candidates disagreed over the plan named for US Representative Paul Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential nominee, to restructure Medicare to allow senior citizens the option to choose to receive vouchers to pursue health care in the private market. Bielat supports the Ryan plan, and said senior citizens could choose to continue receiving benefits under the traditional Medicare format.
Kennedy insisted “the numbers quite simply do not work” under the Ryan plan, which he said would cost individual seniors thousands of dollars in increased medical costs.
They differed again on whether to raise the eligibility age for Social Security benefits.
“I don’t think you need to do it now,” Kennedy said.
Bielat countered, “The people who don’t want to change the entitlement programs right now are going to end them.” He favors a gradual increase in the retirement age that would exempt workers who are now over 50, he said.
They found common ground on a couple of issues.
Both opposed the so-called “right to die” ballot question that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients; both opposed the ballot question seeking to legalize medical marijuana.
After the debate, Bielat pounded Kennedy again over his qualifications. “There’s no record of accomplishment,” he said to reporters, as Kennedy stood a few feet away.
The Republican also criticized his opponent for agreeing to just three debates.
“I can’t imagine in any other race you’d have a first-time challenger go and refuse to do media, to do debates,” said Bielat, who has raised far less money for advertising than Kennedy and favors more debates. “It’s an unusual dynamic, to say the least, and I would hope voters ask for more before they start making decisions.”
Kennedy, the favorite in the race, had nearly $2 million in his campaign account as of August. Bielat had about $65,000.
The Democrat said he is satisfied with the debate schedule.
“We’re doing three debates in span of eight weeks, nine weeks,” he said. “Part of this is also about getting out, meeting more voters, and getting them to know me. And that is what we’re focused on.”
He expects to continue to be accused of coasting on his family name.
“To the extent that it is still a question, I still need to answer it,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words, and that is part of the reason we have run such an aggressive campaign in trying to get out there and meet as many people as we can.”