In the 8th, what do Boockvar and Fitzpatrick really believe?

Posted: November 02, 2012

CROSSING the Poquessing Creek into Bucks County is like stepping into a political time machine.

As voters across the country throw out established politicians for more extreme options, Bucks residents seem increasingly proud of their centrism, ticket-splitting and resistance to ideological movements.

The post-industrial boroughs in lower Bucks are Democratic turf, but they can stomach Republicans who are soft on labor. The rural villages of upper Bucks are generally conservative, but many went for Barack Obama in 2008. And in between, the ever-expanding subdivisions and boutique-lined Main Streets are packed with parents who take far greater pride in their children's school districts than in their party registrations.

All of which explains why the county's congressional candidates seem to be in a race to say the word "independent" in every sound bite. And why the campaign machinery backing them - desperate to paint the opponent as extremist - may have led you to believe that the race pits Atilla the Hun against Joseph Stalin.

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick - a former county commissioner elected in 2004, defeated in 2006 and re-elected last cycle - has worked for years to build a reputation as a moderate. But his opponent, Kathy Boockvar, says that the tea-party movement has transformed him.

Boockvar, a Doylestown lawyer, has spent much of her career representing middle-class and disadvantaged clients. She says that her legal training as a mediator will help her bring the two parties together in Washington. Republican groups, however, say that her background reflects support for far-left causes.

Below, the People Paper examines the two fundamental questions in the 8th District race.

* Has the tea party changed Mike Fitzpatrick?

* Is Kathy Boockvar too liberal for Bucks County?

Spoiler alert: It's complicated.

WHEN FITZPATRICK was reigniting his political career in early 2010, things were looking good for November. He was running in a GOP-wave year with superb name recognition and financial support. The real problem was the May primary, when he had to defeat a crowded field of upstart conservatives.

After making a career out of bucking his party's ideological faction, Fitzpatrick suddenly had to prove his right-wing bona fides. He turned to the Independence Hall Tea Party Association in February.

"When you look at his record, on balance, he is center-right and a reasonable guy," Don Adams, co-founder of the group, said in a recent interview. "There was one really big issue that we had with him regarding a position he took. He was in favor of cap-and-trade," a policy that would cap the nation's carbon emissions and allow companies to trade for the rights to burn fossil fuels.

In his first term, Fitzpatrick backed a Democrat-led climate-change bill, saying, "Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase without strong government leadership." The measure failed, but Fitzpatrick was seen as an aisle-crosser, a vital asset in his 2006 race against Pat Murphy.

Four years later, the move was viewed by conservatives as a black eye.

"We had a chance to speak at length with him about cap-and-trade and how, from our perspective, he was definitely on the wrong side of the issue," Adams said. "For the first time in a while, he had given some thought to it, and in the end, he switched his position. I think that made him much more palatable to us."

Weeks later, Adams' group gave Fitzpatrick his first tea-party endorsement, critical for many establishment Republicans that year.

Democrats pounced on the flipflop to paint Fitzpatrick as a tea-party zealot.

But overall, Fitzpatrick still breaks with his party more often than most representatives. In ratings of party-line votes, he is consistently ranked as one of the most moderate Republicans.

He lamented the fact that moderates are now more scarce on both sides of the aisle than they were in his first term.

"When I'm leading a group of Republicans across party lines to join with Democrats on an issue that is important to Bucks County and the 8th District in Pennsylvania, the numbers are fewer," he said. "It's more important to have that rare public official who's willing to take on their party when they think the party's wrong."

But since returning to Congress, Fitzpatrick has yet to buck GOP leadership on a high-profile vote. He stood by Speaker John Boehner in the standoff over the debt limit and voted twice for the Republican budgets championed by vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

So has the tea party turned Fitzpatrick into a right-wing ideologue? Probably not. But it has made him more conservative, and it definitely has made it more difficult for him to accomplish things as a moderate.

ON THE campaign trail, Kathy Boockvar has worked tirelessly to fend off Republican attempts to link her to far-left causes.

When she was accused of having "troubling connections" to cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, she milked the media coverage of Fitzpatrick's refusal to denounce the widely disputed attack.

When GOP groups highlight her work for the liberal Advancement Project, she cites her years as a public-interest lawyer, representing working-class people suing their employers for discrimination or trying to claim benefits.

By most accounts, she's done as good a job as she can in fighting back the well-funded onslaught of caricatures painting her as an extreme leftist.

But when it comes to asserting herself as an independent, Boockvar runs into a problem: On almost every issue, she is in lockstep with the Democratic Party.

She staunchly supports abortion rights, wants taxes to increase on the wealthy and favors expanding early education.

Asked to identify positions she holds that would be surprising for a Democrat, Boockvar said that she supports lowering the corporate tax rate by closing loopholes - a framework that has been endorsed by most politicians, including President Obama.

On some issues - like medicinal marijuana and single-payer health care - she shied away from taking a rigid stance, but hinted that she would support the more liberal option.

Boockvar said that marijuana legislation would not be "one of my top issues" but that "there certainly seems to be some evidence that medical marijuana could help people in pain feel better."

She has often said that the 2010 Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," wasn't her "ideal" health-care reform, although she believes it is a step in the right direction.

Asked whether her ideal reform would be a single-payer, or "socialized," system, in which the government owns and operates the health-care industry, Boockvar equivocated.

"I'm not sure I want to say it that way," she said. "I think we need to be exploring all the options." She did say, however, that she is "not crazy about the system we have, but it's so entrenched."

While there is no apparent reason to label Boockvar a radical, there is also no apparent reason to label her more moderate than your run-of-the-mill liberal Democrat.

Boockvar's inability to point to specific issues she would cross the aisle for may hamstring her with moderate suburbanites, said G. Terry Madonna, political-science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.

"It is essential to make the point that, 'I'm an indpendent; when I disagree with my party, I disagree with my party,' " Madonna said.

Randall Miller, a political scientist at St. Joseph's University, said that Boockvar's lack of a voting record - usually an advantage for challengers - may actually hurt her in this case.

"One of the things we do know is that most people say they want bipartisanship. And how do you demonstrate that?" Miller said. "She doesn't really have anything to run on herself in that regard."

Boockvar, however, stresses her desire to work with Republicans toward compromise, no matter what their starting points are.

"Democrats and Republicans have always disagreed on things," she said. "The difference is that they've completely stopped talking to each other."

To break through the stalemate, she said, Congress needs to return to the days when cross-party friendships were common.

"They'd go out to get a beer, or get a bite to eat or play cards. I want to bring that back," she said. "I absolutely feel like that's a critical piece of the relationship."

So is Boockvar too liberal for the 8th District? Probably not - assuming that, if elected, she lives up to her talk about compromise.


Contact Sean Collins Walsh at 215-854-5745 or walshse@phillynews.com.

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