Live Senate debate ends with personal attack on Murphy

West Hartford — A U.S. Senate race that has followed a fairly consistent script to date took a sharp twist Thursday as the first live, televised debate among the five Democratic candidates closed with a bizarre flurry of name-calling, including a label of “whore” aimed at 5th District Rep. Christopher Murphy.

Frustrated over what she argued was misrepresentation of her opposition to the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, Lee Whitnum of Greenwich, one of the lesser known candidates, explained she was revising her closing comments, and then proceeded to blast Murphy and to call state Rep. William Tong of Stamford “ignorant.”

Thursday’s debate at WVIT TV-30 studios in West Hartford also featured former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and East Hartford Democrat Matthew Oakes.

The debate was moderated by news anchor Gerry Brooks.

“I’m dealing with (a) whore here, who sells his soul to AIPAC, who will say anything for the job,” Whitnum said of Murphy, who had rejected her assessment that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee “led the United States” into an unnecessary war in Iraq.

The costs of conflict have dramatically weakened the nation’s economy and did little except to further the strategic interests of Israel, Whitnum charged earlier in the debate, arguing that this is clear to those who study the issue unless “you stick your head in the sand like Congressman Murphy … because he drinks the AIPAC Kool-Aid.”

Murphy had countered in the middle of the debate that Israel is an American ally facing increasing pressure both from Egypt and from an Iran seeking nuclear capability. “Israel needs friends today now more than ever,” he said. “… Should we stand for this kind of outlandish language about Jewish Americans who stand up for their homeland?” he said. Murphy added, referring to Whitnum, that “a lot of her comments are out of bounds.”

“I also take offense to your comments about Israel,” Tong, the first Chinese American to serve in the General Assembly, told Whitnum. “I’ve had a very different experience than most of the people up here. I’ve had to fight for most things in my life.”

Whitnum explained as she began her closing comments that “somehow (her argument) is twisted to be a racist comment.”

Tong didn’t respond to Whitnum’s attack in his final comment, but Murphy said that while he had supported inviting all the Democratic Senate candidates to participate in debates, “I might think twice about that with that kind of awful language being used on the airwaves.”

All five Democrats are scheduled to participate in another televised debate Wednesday afternoon at the University of Connecticut. When asked later if he meant UConn should exclude Whitnum from that event, Murphy said, “I haven’t really begun to think about it. There’s no place for that language.”

Oakes said afterward that he doesn’t think Whitnum should be included in future debates, adding, “I was the one who spoke out the loudest about including all of the candidates” beforehand.

Visibly shaken afterward, Whitnum’s first statement when approached by reporters was: “I did a terrible job,” adding that she hadn’t been able to explain her views clearly.

And while she reasserted that she thinks Murphy’s pro-Israel position is wrong, “I probably came on a little bit strong.”

Before Whitnum’s closing outburst, Thursday’s forum followed themes played out repeatedly in the campaign to date.

The Democrats with the highest standing in the polls — Murphy, Bysiewicz and Tong — tried to separate themselves, while espousing largely similar positions on:

  • The need for quick troop withdrawal from Afghanistan;
  • Preserving President Obama’s health care reform legislation if any portions are struck down in a case awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court;
  • Promoting renewable energy sources to reduce dependence on foreign and domestically produced oil;
  • Maintaining low-interest loans for college students;
  • And ensuring that more affordable refinancing options are available for Americans struggling with steep mortgage payments.

The front-runners did manage to stake out somewhat different territory when it came to the best strategies for creating new jobs and keeping companies from moving work out of state or out of the country.

Tong advocated new legislation that would allow new workers coming off unemployment to use part of their benefit temporarily to reduce the compensation their new employer would have to provide.

Murphy said he would look to restrict business tax incentives, limiting them largely to companies that keep jobs within the United States. “We’ve had a tax code written by the multi-national corporations,” he said.

Bysiewicz, who repeatedly pledged to hold Wall Street speculators responsible for the economic damage created in the last recession, favors a new securities transaction tax that would raise about $150 billion annually, funds that should be used to provide mortgage relief to middle-class homeowners and job creation incentives in the renewable energy field.

“I want to go to the Senate to hold Wall Street accountable for the mess they’ve made of this country,” said Bysiewicz, who also charged that the securities and hedge fund industries have funneled more than $500,000 into Murphy’s campaign. “Wall Street has rewarded Chris Murphy for not closing loopholes in laws regulating hedge funds,” she said.

And though Bysiewicz argued she is the only candidate who preferred to hold Wall Street accountable, Oakes was quick to correct her, adding that he favors tighter regulations and expanded tax breaks for small businesses. “Let them enjoy the same tax breaks we give large corporations,” he said.

Whitnum argued that more than $30 billion in annual U.S. aid to Israel, if redirected domestically, could be invested in transportation, education and other areas that would boost the economy. “We absolutely must stop funding a country,” she said.