Perry, DePasquale engage in brisk debate on pandemic, policing

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Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry and Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale dodged and weaved through a fast moving hour-long debate Thursday night.

The debate, hosted by ABC-27 in Harrisburg, featured the two candidates trading blows on everything from policing to the pandemic to Social Security.It was the first of two debates between the candidates in central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District.

Perry is a former Army helicopter pilot and state legislator who was first elected to Congress in 2012. DePasquale, the two-term elected fiscal watchdog and former state legislator, is term limited out of his statewide office, and is running to unseat Perry.

The 10th District, which stretches from Hershey through Harrisburg to Carlisle and York, is widely seen as one of the most competitive this cycle. Drawn by the state Supreme Court in 2018, it includes both Democratic small cities, Republican rural expanses and, crucially, swingy suburbs.

President Donald Trump won the district by 9 percentage points in 2016. But running for reelection, DePasquale, a York resident, also eked out a slim win within the boundaries. 

DePasquale has run as a pragmatic moderate, in contrast to Perry, a fellow York County resident and a member of the House’s Freedom Caucus, an archconservative group of Republican lawmakers.

Perry, meanwhile, has tried to paint DePasquale as far more liberal than he seems, and attempted to chip away at the outgoing watchdog’s clean image. Those trends repeated Thursday.

Racial injustice

Policing issues started the debate, as moderators followed up on Perry questioning the existence of systemic racism last month, arguing that it was the “sensationalism” of police violence that had changed.

Pressed at the debate, Perry said that “greater than 99 percent of our policing force are good people” in policing hurt by the existence of “someone lesser” who always exists.

As for systemic issues, Perry pointed to his support for tax incentives for developers in low income neighborhoods as well as the First Step Act, a bill Trump signed into law in 2017 to reduce federal sentences for some drug crimes,

DePasquale said he supported a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House to ban chokeholds outright and make it easier to sue police officers who violate civil rights, a bill Perry rejected.

Perry countered that he supported a less strict bill proposed by the GOP-controlled Senate, which instead tied reporting and a less stringent chokehold ban to federal law enforcement funding.

Perry also tried to tie DePasquale to anti-police signs at peaceful protests the auditor general attended last month. But DePasquale ignored the charge.

“There is clearly a racism problem in America and it must be addressed,” DePasquale said. He said he’d do so by improving health care and education in minority communities.

Coronavirus response

Perry, echoing the president, said that America’s high COVID-19 infection and death rates were a result of elevated testing, but otherwise expressed confidence that the federal government could roll out a vaccine promptly.

He also frequently criticized DePasquale’s response to the virus as auditor general, calling him a “lap dog” instead of a “watchdog.”

While the auditor general does not set policy, Perry argued that DePasquale should have been a more vocal opponent of Gov. Tom Wolf on everything from meat sales to protective equipment to business closures.

DePasquale countered that the fault instead lay with Perry and Washington D.C. for moving slowly to provide protective equipment and  small business aid. He also pointed to moments when Perry seemed to minimize the virus’s threat.

“We really have no choice but for the federal government to act,”DePasquale said. “Without that, we’d be in the throes of another Great Depression.”

DePasquale also pointed to an audit released earlier this week that criticized a Wolf administration program to reopen select businesses during the pandemic as unfair.

There was one moment of agreement, however. Both candidates said they would oppose a national mask mandate.

Retirement

According to the Social Security Administration, changes are needed to ensure elderly Americans get their retirement benefits beyond the 2030’s. 

DePasquale said he would draw a hardline on raising the retirement age. He also said he was concerned that Trump’s executive order to defer payroll taxes would harm Social Security funding on top of the pandemic-related recession.

He then pressed Perry to make a similar promise, but Perry refused.

“I support making Social Security solvent,” Perry fired back. In 2015 and 2017, Perry voted to raise the retirement age.

Perry instead pointed to bills to remove any taxes on Social Security benefits and to prevent undocumented immigrants, who pay billions of dollars into the program.