NEWTON — In their feistiest debate yet, US Representative John F. Tierney and Republican challenger Richard Tisei jammed highly charged personal attacks and substantive policy disagreements into 23 television minutes Thursday night.
In their first three meetings, the candidates almost entirely avoided the issue that has shrouded the race — what, if anything, Tierney knew about the illegal gambling ring run by his wife’s brothers — but moderator Jim Braude made it the first topic on his NECN show. Tisei immediately accused Tierney of dining on the island of Antigua at the home of a fugitive, although technically, the dinner occurred a year before Tierney’s brother-in-law was indicted on 442 counts.
“Having dinner with a fugitive from justice?’’ Tisei said. “As a congressman, you should be thinking about that. There should be a congressional investigation.”
Tierney, who has represented the North Shore in Congress for eight terms, hit back, calling Tisei “shameless” three times in a rapid-fire exchange between the two, seated tightly next to each other on the “Broadside” set.
“You have lied and used insinuation and innuendo on this whole thing and spent $3 million doing it. My wife paid a terrible price on that; she took responsibility for not knowing,” said Tierney, calling the one-month prison sentence and house arrest served by his wife, Patrice, punishment enough without subjecting the Salem grandmother to the bruising ads and mailings that have come from Tisei and outside political groups.
Tisei accused Tierney of allegedly misleading the public in financial disclosure forms about whether he and his wife benefited from the gambling ring.
Patrice Tierney admitted “willful blindness” to the illegal offshore gambling enterprise run by her brothers, agreeing to plead guilty to tax fraud in 2010 for handling bills and taxes in the United States for one of the brothers.
“Your naked ambition — political ambition — has let you take her and do this to her because you want a seat that you otherwise couldn’t get,” Tierney said on the New England Cable News debate.
Even when they talked policy, it became personal. The two differ on a looming 2.3 percent tax on medical device manufacturers that Tisei calls a job killer but that Tierney says is necessary to fund coverage for 350,000 of the uninsured, while contending device makers would benefit from more people accessing health care.
“You need to go around your district and talk to medical device makers,” said Tisei, a former state senator from Wakefield. “What they’re doing is implementing hiring freezes, and they’re talking about layoffs right now.”
Tierney disputed that, saying device manufacturers are expanding or arriving in Massachusetts.
No, Tisei said. “Go out and talk to people right now.”
“I’ve been out there talking for 16 years,” Tierney said. Tisei scoffed. Tierney called him an absentee.
“Richard, in [your] 26 years in the state Legislature, I’ve been up there 16 years, we’ve had overlap in our districts in all that time, I’ve never gotten a phone call, I’ve never gotten an e-mail, I’ve never had him stop me or come up to me with any issue of importance and now all of a sudden he’s the expert on everything congressional and everything in the district,” Tierney said.
“There are parts of the district that have never seen you in 16 years,” Tisei said.
“Not true,” Tierney insisted.
Tisei described himself as a moderate who supports closing some tax deductions — such as for yachts and second-home mortgages — and who would have voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed by President Obama, which made it easier to sue over gender discrimination in pay.
As potentially the only Republican in the Massachusetts House delegation, Tisei said he would give the district and state a voice in the majority and lobby for moderation within the GOP.
“Richard, they will kick you to the curb so fast,” said Tierney, who has painted Tisei as a Tea Party movement flunky.
“No, that’s what happened to you,” an animated Tisei said.
“Don’t you point your finger at me,” Tierney said.
“You voted 99 percent of the time with the [Democratic] leadership in the 16 years you’ve been in Congress,” Tisei said. “You’ve been part of the problem.”
The two disagreed on taxes and the federal health care law but agreed on three issues in a “lightning round”: support for medical marijuana, physician-assisted suicide, and a ban on assault weapons.
Earlier Thursday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks races, tipped the Tierney-Tisei race from a toss up to leaning in favor of the Republican.
“The problem for Tierney is that fewer voters believe that Tisei is a Tea Party hack . . . than that Tierney didn’t know of his wife’s involvement,” said David Wasserman, the report’s House analyst.