As three Republican hopefuls in the race to replace Representative Barney Frank squared off in a heated radio debate Tuesday morning, the biggest clash was not about the job they want, but the job one of them already holds.
Sean Bielat, the Norfolk Republican, took fire from Dr. Elizabeth Childs, a psychiatrist from Brookline who hammered him for failing to disclose the name of his current employer — an online political start-up where he serves as chief executive — or its roster of investors.
“You have a transparency problem that has to be resolved,” Childs told Bielat during a debate hosted by Talk 1200 Boston. “You are not electable in this district unless you are willing to talk about who you work for and who the investors are.”
Bielat, who has avoided publicly discussing details of the start-up on the campaign trail, pushed back by calling Childs’ claims “ridiculous” and saying they show her lack of business understanding.
He refuses to name the website — an interactive site that helps citizens directly contact any member of Congress about issues that concern them — because he said he wants the site to remain nonpartisan and separate from his congressional campaign.
Start-ups, he insisted during the debate, never reveal their investors until the company has gone public.
“Angel investments tend to be private; that’s how it works.” said Bielat, who ran unsuccessfully against Frank in 2010. “We are not going to publicize the name of the business until we’re off the ground and people aren’t associating it with me.”
The third candidate in the Fourth District race — Dr. David Steinhof, a Fall River dentist — largely avoided the spat, characterizing it as the exact kind of politics voters are tired of, but added that he, too, believes that Bielat should be more open about the source of his income.
“We need to know,” Steinhof said. “The public needs to know.”
In an interview Tuesday, Bielat shed more light on his current employer, which he said has fewer than five full-time employees and is currently funded by a handful of investors.
Bielat, who was on active duty in the US Marine Corps from 1998 to 2002, worked as an executive at iRobot Corp. in Bedford from 2006 to 2009. After his failed attempted in 2010 to oust Frank, Bielat went to work as an independent consultant for technology companies.
Last summer, he was hired to run the start-up, which has not yet been fully launched. Bielat said that if elected, he will resign from the company.
“If I were still at iRobot, no one would say: ‘Who are your customers?’ ” he said. “It’s not a lack of transparency. It’s a lack, on her side, of understanding how business is done.”
The three GOP hopefuls are vying to take on Joseph P. Kennedy III, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and the presumptive Democratic nominee for the seat being vacated by Frank, who is not seeking reelection after 16 terms in Congress.
Bielat gained name recognition after conservatives nationwide helped fund his 2010 attempt to unseat Frank, and he remains the favorite to take on Kennedy in the general election.
In this race, however, Childs, who served as Governor Mitt Romney’s mental health commissioner, has earned the endorsement of several prominent Republicans, including former governor Jane Swift.
In an interview Tuesday, Childs said that she was unsatisfied with Bielat’s responses and that she has no plans to drop her questions about the website’s investors.
“I’ve never heard of a candidate for public office who won’t say who they are working for and how they’re funded,” Childs said, adding that the lack of clarity could be campaign fodder for Kennedy if Bielat is successful in the primary.
Kennedy, who is heavily favored to win a three-way Democratic primary that also includes Herb Robinson and Rachel Brown, has yet to engage the GOP hopefuls.
His campaign has focused heavily on voter outreach and fund-raising, and has collected $1.3 million in the second quarter alone — making him one of the nation’s top-tier congressional fund-raisers.
But Bielat — who raised $218,000 during the second quarter, compared with Childs’ $51,000 — said he is ready to take on Kennedy and that he doubts the Democrat will question the details of his employer.
“It’s utterly separate from my campaign,” he said. “I can’t see Kennedy talking about it.”