Fitzpatrick, Boockvar keep cool - but campaign doesn't

Kathy Boockvar heads for a door while pounding the pavement in Bristol Township, Bucks.
Kathy Boockvar heads for a door while pounding the pavement in Bristol Township, Bucks. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / For The Inquirer)
Posted: October 09, 2012

Out here, they seem like reasonable people who just disagree.

Away from their party-sponsored attack machines and blistering accusations, the candidates in the most hard-fought congressional race in this region listen, ask questions, and respond with measured, thoughtful answers.

The incumbent Republican, U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, talks to friendly GOP voters about lowering taxes and trimming regulations.

The next night, Kathy Boockvar, the Democratic challenger in the Eighth Congressional District, which covers Bucks County and part of Montgomery, knocks on doors, promising to use her experience as a mediator as an antidote to the partisan venom in Washington.

It's a warm, quiet evening on a street of modest homes.

It's also the end of two days that featured the most vicious moments thus far in this race, in which the candidates' amiable personalities sharply contrast with the campaigns' rugged tactics.

Though in person the two discuss real differences on real issues, on the Web somewhere, ads darkly claim Boockvar has ties to a convicted police killer, and e-mail blasts charge Fitzpatrick with caring only about business owners, not workers.

Fitzpatrick

In the parking lot by the quaint Quakertown train station, a red pickup truck pulls up at a Sept. 26 meeting of local Republicans. Its bumper sticker reads: "Romney in 2012. For the least possible damage."

Inside the refurbished stone building, in a meeting room done in rich wood, 21 people on folding chairs are listening to State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) preach "Obamacare's" perils. A table in back is stocked with chips and two tubs of pretzel rods.

Someone says President Obama exempted unions from the law, a claim fact-checkers have dismissed. Someone else asks, "Aren't the Muslims exempt, too?" The room briefly falls silent.

Fitzpatrick, 49, arrives wearing dark grays and black, grabs a water bottle, talks about having been in Congress in 2005 and 2006 and returning in 2011.

"The annual budget deficits have gone through the roof," he says.

To find a way to fix the economy, Fitzpatrick says, he visited 100 Bucks County businesses. The owners of Histand's Equipment, which sells farm and lawn-care machinery in Doylestown, summed up what he heard.

"If you want to help the private economy, they said, 'lower taxes and get out of the way,' " Fitzpatrick recalls. He pauses for effect. "Lower taxes and get out of the way."

The race, he says, is about which party can lead Americans to economic recovery. One spends less, taxes less, and gives more freedom to people and businesses, he says. The other needs higher taxes to fuel its spending.

Fitzpatrick makes clear which side he is on.

Bob Heitz, a mechanic for 25 years and now a state constable, liked what he heard. "Get the monkey off my back," he said later, describing his concerns in the Nov. 6 election.

Meeting with a reporter, Fitzpatrick sits atop a table in a side room. He sits up a little straighter when he mentions that he grew up in Levittown and still lives there, three blocks from his parents.

An aide hands him papers that include the National Journal's ranking of him as one of the least conservative Republicans in Congress. Fitzpatrick puts it differently - that he's one of the most independent.

By percentages, that's true, though Democrats point to his backing of key conservative bills, such as two budgets offered by Paul Ryan, now the GOP vice presidential candidate, as well as calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats also deride Fitzpatrick's votes for tax breaks they say make it profitable to move jobs abroad. They have highlighted his local tea party backing, his vote to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood, and his sponsorship of a bill restricting abortion funding that used the words forcible rape to describe a potential exception. ( Forcible was dropped after outcry from women's groups.)

Hours before this meeting, Democrats released a tape of Fitzpatrick at a tea party event. They claimed he disparaged everyday workers when he said he supported people who sign the front of checks, not the back. He said his foes were seizing on a dropped word - that he meant to say "not just the back." He has since barred recordings at two events.

On women's issues, Fitzpatrick points out that he has three daughters, ages 23, 20, and 18. The biggest concern for them, he says, is opportunities to land good jobs.

He wants to lower the corporate tax rate and close loopholes businesses use. He has voted to repeal Obama's health-care law, though he now says he supports popular provisions such as requiring insurers to cover patients with preexisting conditions.

Out of office after losing in 2006, he says he wanted to return to Congress after seeing the health-care vote.

"I watched the federal government, in the national discussion of one of the most important issues we're dealing with right now, how to contain health-care costs, forward a bill that was more about inserting the federal government into the doctor-patient relationship, eliminate any of the free-market principles for our health-care system, the best in the world, and completely ignore the whole important issue of cost containment," he says.

As he speaks, a Republican national campaign unit is about to launch an attack on Boockvar that paints her as a wild leftist. Fitzpatrick says he doesn't know about it.

Within hours, a GOP website blares: "Radical activist Kathy Boockvar has ties to convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal."

Boockvar

The attacks point to nothing Boockvar did or said. They cite legal work her husband did, more than a decade after Abu-Jamal's conviction, for people with no role in committing the 1981 crime.

After a day of beating back the accusations, Boockvar, in a skirt and pink top, arrives at a quiet street in Bristol Township marked by small lawns and low-slung houses. She knocks on the door of a rancher where a flat-screen TV visible through the screen door shows a network sitcom.

She says these visits are educational - "what I found probably more than anything else is that the frustration that you can hear about the stagnation in Congress is shared by everybody."

Michael Lynskey, 36, comes to the door with his muscular pit bull, Zeus, and beagle-labrador mix, Jessie.

"I'm running against Mike Fitzpatrick," Boockvar says.

"Good," Lynskey answers.

An ATM repairman with his first child on the way, Lynskey says Congress suffers from the same problem as his bosses - not listening to people in the field. He knows little about Fitzpatrick, but thinks Republicans have done nothing but block Obama.

"They're the problem," he says. "They're playing a 5-year-old's game of 'we didn't win, so we're not going to do anything.' "

Boockvar points to words on top of her flier: "We need Congress working together to get something done." She explains that as a lawyer trained in mediation, she can help find common ground.

Earlier, she espoused the same point in an interview at Union Station in Washington.

"I ended up integrating mediation into my whole practice, and, really, my life," Boockvar said that morning while a bagel and cream cheese sat on her plate. "You're encouraging this exchange of ideas and focusing on the bridge, focusing on where you have similarities and not focused on the differences."

A native of Woodmere, N.Y., on Long Island, Boockvar moved to Bucks County in 1995 and now lives in Doylestown. In November, a day after losing a statewide race for Commonwealth Court, she got a call from U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa).

Schwartz was recruiting congressional candidates.

"You can imagine it's not where my head was. But I decided I owed it due diligence and started looking into it," Boockvar says.

The race looked winnable. Plus, when she told her 13-year-old, Colette, that only 17 percent of Congress is female, Colette signed on, so Boockvar was in.

She says she's running to focus on jobs and help bridge the divide in Congress. She campaigns mainly on points closely aligned with Democrats' national message: raise taxes on high incomes to help balance the budget; make Medicare more efficient but don't cut benefits. She says "Obamacare" isn't perfect, but she broadly supports it.

She has taken sharp aim at Fitzpatrick's record, such as his vote on Planned Parenthood and stance on abortion - he opposes it, with exceptions. "He's basically opposite where I would have been and where the district is," Boockvar says.

Republicans, in turn, have cast her as a radical, more in step with Nancy Pelosi than with moderate Bucks County.

Boockvar takes the attacks as a sign the GOP is worried about losing a seat in a perpetually close district.

As September fades into October, they are also a sign that in this race, at least, the temperature isn't dropping.


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Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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