NEEDHAM — Move over, illegal gambling. In a second televised debate every bit as personal and bitter as their first, US Representative John F. Tierney and Republican challenger Richard Tisei continued their name-calling over what Tierney did or did not know about the gambling scandal that sent his wife to prison. But they also staked out new ground, arguing fiercely over whether 2006 was a good year for the housing market.
Trying to change the subject from gambling, Tierney said Tisei was brimming with “chutzpah” and “hypocrisy” for paying no federal income tax in 2006 and 2008, when the housing downturn caused reported losses for Tisei’s Lynnfield real estate agency to exceed his state Senate salary and income from rental properties.
Perhaps in 2008, but not in 2006, Tierney contended in a debate taped at WCVB-TV (Channel 5) Thursday that will air Sunday. “Richard, 2006 was a boom year.”
“It wasn’t a boom year in my market,” Tisei said, asserting that he absorbed heavy losses to avoid laying off brokers.
Tierney: “It was a boom year.”
Tisei: “It wasn’t a boom year.”
And so on, as they talked over each other, Tierney mocking Tisei for advertising his firm as a “leader in home sales” despite supposedly being unprofitable two years; Tisei insisting sales records support his assertions about the market.
They do — home sales dropped in Lynnfield in 2006, perked up in 2007, then collapsed in 2008, according to Warren Group, which tracks real estate activity — but that was almost beside the point in a debate reflective of a race ranked by Politico as one of the country’s nastiest.
It is also among the most expensive. Tisei spent more than $1.5 million and Tierney more than $1.4 million in the year through Sept. 30 .
But Tisei has particularly benefited from the super PACs that can raise and spend money without limits if they avoid directly coordinating with a candidate. They have spent $3.5 million supporting Tisei compared with less than $1.2 million for Tierney, according to federal filings.
Tierney said that money would make Tisei beholden to “right-wing extremists” in the House Republican majority. “Their agenda is to cut deep, deep cuts in education and health care and veterans benefits to pay for tax cuts for millionaires.”
Tierney accused Tisei five times of a smear campaign. Tisei said Tierney misled voters by claiming he knew nothing about, and did not profit from, the illegal gambling. He exhorted him to give back gambling money collected by Tierney’s wife and to stop trying to paint Tisei as a “Tea Party radical.”
“It is absolutely incredible that you would actually stoop so low,” Tisei said, calling Tierney’s insinuation that Tisei manipulated his own taxes “a bunch of bunk.” “You haven’t been honest with the voters this entire campaign.”
There are policy differences between them, but they emerged only in flashes. They spent the first 13 of 22 on-camera minutes arguing about gambling, personal taxes, and who has run a dirtier campaign or is more beholden to outside interests.
Tierney, an eight-term Salem Democrat, has cruised to reelection every two years in the Sixth Congressional District since first winning in 1996. He would likely be assured the same this year if not for the investigation that led his wife, Patrice, to plead guilty in 2010 to “willful blindness” in helping her brother Robert Eremian file false tax returns disguising his gambling income.
Last year she spent a month in prison and is now serving two years of probation. Another brother, Daniel Eremian, is serving three years in prison. Robert remains a fugitive.
That has opened the door to money from GOP activists who sense Tierney’s vulnerability and see Tisei, who supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights, as a moderate who might succeed in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
They clashed repeatedly over what Tisei called the “dirty money” from the gambling business. Federal records show Patrice Tierney wrote a monthly $1,000 check to herself from Robert Eremian’s funds and a monthly $1,000 check to her mother, which her mother then signed back to her, meaning she paid herself at least $24,000 annually for about six years.
The Tierneys have described the checks as gifts from a relative that do not need to be reported as income and have said that the congressman believed came from legal sources.
They agreed on a few things: Each supports legalizingmedical marijuana and assisted suicide, predicts a Patriots victory in London, and knows the price of milk.Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.