At first, the two debating Democratic candidates for Congress seemed almost too civil.
The gloves came off slowly during the hour-long contest between 34-year-old Jackson Eaton of Allentown and 51-year-old Rick Daugherty of Lowhill Township.
Both were conservatively dressed in coats and ties for the Tuesday night debate at Muhlenberg College’s Seegers Union.
Both spoke knowledgeably and shared similar positions on many key issues. And both share one major goal: to unseat incumbent Charlie Dent, the Republican Congressman who represents the 15th Congressional district, in the November general election.
Which one of them gets to do that will be decided on primary election day in two weeks.
An estimated 200 people in the audience got to weigh Eaton’s impressive credentials --as an Army captain and a lawyer who worked on Congressional investigations in Washington, including as counsel on the president’s commission on the BP oil spill -- against Daugherty’s pride as a lifelong Democrat and social worker dedicated to helping people.
Daugherty has been executive director of the Lehigh County Senior Citizens Center for 16 years and is in his second term as chairman of the Lehigh County Democratic committee. He also was district administrator for Paul McHale, “the last Democratic congressman to hold this seat.”
“If I’m elected to Congress, you know who I am,” said Daugherty.
Eaton repeatedly claimed he is the only candidate who can beat Dent in the fall.
“While 13 million Americans were unemployed, our Congress, and our Congressman Charlie Dent, did absolutely nothing about the economy,” said Eaton. “That is the number one issue people care about.”
Daugherty said he decided to run when Dent voted for a Republican budget that would eliminate Medicare.
Eaton got some laughs from the audience when he said Congress has a lower approval rating than deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and that, “although Dent likes to say that he’s a moderate, he’s a MINO – moderate in name only.” More laughs came when he said Dent “likes to say he is pro-choice but, as Ted Kennedy said, he’s really multiple choice.”
Daugherty got in the first shot of the debate when he said: “When I hear Jackson say ‘modify popular programs’ I fear that’s code language for going after Social Security and Medicare. I don’t support it.”
When a woman in the audience asked the candidates their positions about a woman’s right to choose, Eaton said: “Rick and I agree on many issues, but this is one where we disagree. I am 100 percent pro choice and Rick is not.”
Daugherty said: “I am pro-life, similar to Sen. Casey’s position. A woman’s right to choose is constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court made very clear that when life begins is an individual decision, not one for government to make.” He also said he supports funding for Planned Parenthood.
For those unfamiliar with the candidates, the big surprise came near the end when Daugherty said: “Jackson helped to get Charlie Dent elected in 2004. Jackson voted in the Republican primary just last year. In fact, this is his first election where he’s a registered Democrat. That is a stark difference between the two of us.”
He added Eaton just changed his party affiliation a few months ago. He’s perplexed why Eaton is running against Dent as a Democrat rather than a Republican.
“This is a not a surprise to anyone,” said Eaton. “I didn’t leave the Republican party, The Republican party left me. The Republican party has gone far to the right. ”
He said he’s a Democrat because he agrees with Democratic values. “I belong in the Democratic party.”
Eaton said the economy and the jobs crisis will be his top priority. He proposes spending $50 billion on improving national infrastructure, saying one in four Pennsylvania bridges is rated structurally deficient.
Daugherty’s number one priority will be supporting programs that help senior citizens, “many of which have been cut.”
He said he’ll fight to strengthen Medicare, protect Social Security and increase funding for senior housing and work experience programs.
The debate was sponsored by Muhlenberg College Democrats and moderated by Christopher Borick, political science professor and director of the college’s Institute of Public Opinion. At the end, Borick complimented both candidates for their respectful and substance-laden debate.
Who won? That will be determined by Democrats at the polls on April 24.