Technical glitches and testy exchanges characterized the first debate –- conducted virtually –between Rep. Jahana Hayes, who is recovering from COVID-19, and her GOP opponent David X. Sullivan.

Independent candidate for the 5th District congressional seat Bruce Walczak also participated in the debate, criticizing Hayes for what he said was her partisanship and Sullivan for what he viewed as the shortcomings of the Republican Party.

Organized by the League of Women Voters of Northern Fairfield County and livestreamed by Western Connecticut State University, the debate put on display both the divide between Hayes and Sullivan on key issues and the rancorous nature of the campaign.

At one point an angry Hayes slammed Sullivan with a quote used often by politicians. “If you stop telling lies, I’ll stop telling the truth about you,” she said.

Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor, and Hayes, a former high school history teacher and former National Teacher of the Year, had opposing views on the GOP efforts to quickly confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court after Senate Republicans blocked Obama nominee Merrick Garland, claiming the nomination came too too close to an election. Walzack agreed with Hayes that the process is inappropriate, saying “it’s the Republicans who are changing the rules.”

Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor, said he was opposed to “court packing,” or adding seats on the Supreme Court, something some Democrats are considering if they win back the White House and the U.S. Senate.

Hayes said that although the U.S. Constitution does not say how many justices should sit on the Supreme Court, she did not favor adding to the traditional nine. “I guess I would have to see the legislation,” she said. “But right now I don’t think anything is off the table.”

Hayes and Walzack agreed there is systemic racial problems in policing. Sullivan did not. There was little mention of President Donald Trump, who, as the debate began, had just returned to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Military Center, where he had been undergoing treatment for COVID-19.

Sullivan accused Hayes of voting in lock-step with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and of deep partisanship.

Bipartisanship “is not about saying ‘hello’ to the people on the other side of the aisle,” he said.

Hayes responded by saying that last year, early in her congressional career, she pushed back against Pelosi when the Democratic leader wanted a quick vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that  lawmakers had not had a chance to review. More recently, Hayes said, she pressed Pelosi on the difficulty she had getting her staffers tested for COVID-19 after one tested positive two weeks ago and she did too.

During an appearance on MSNBC on Monday, Pelosi watched video of an interview Hayes had with the network on Saturday in which the Connecticut Democrat said members of Congress do not get regularly tested and that her staffers “had such a hard time getting tested.”

“I had staffers who had such a hard time getting tested. Some of them had to drive to Virginia or to Maryland, to pay out of pocket, and that just should not happen,” Hayes said

Pelosi said, “I’m sorry to hear what the congresswoman had to say.” She went on to say she is “in close touch” with the Capitol Attending Physician and that “people who have reason to be tested are given the opportunity to be tested.”

“And on Capitol Hill, it’s 20,000 workers. It’s not just 435 members of Congress. So, that opportunity is there and I’m sorry that her staff people were not aware of that,” Pelosi said.

Disagreement over tax overhaul

Perhaps the most time spent during the hour-and-a half debate was on the GOP tax overhaul. Hayes said it resulted in a $1.5 trillion increase in the federal budget deficit and benefitted mainly the very rich. Sullivan argued it helped all taxpayers, especially those with the lowest income.

Hayes said the federal government should provide guidance, and more resources, to schools struggling to reopen during the pandemic. Sullivan said the federal government’s role in making schools safe for reopening is limited and a poor use of taxpayer resources.

“Throwing money at things is not responsible,” he said.

Walzack, meanwhile, was often a voice of moderation — although he consistently attacked the nation’s two-party system. The independent promised to spend only $1,000 on his campaign during a heated discussion about fundraising in which Hayes told Sullivan “it’s not my fault you have difficulty raising money.”

Perhaps the greatest difference in the candidates was most obvious in their closing arguments.

Sullivan used his time to stress that he entered the race to “wage a war against socialism” and “a war against Marxism.”

Hayes insisted she is “a collaborator” and said “I have been resolute about not going into the mud.” She also said she has received “hundreds” of offensive tweets recently and none of those who sent them “could put the characters together to say ‘get well soon.’”

Carol Reimer of the League of Women Voters in Connecticut was the debate’s moderator, with questions submitted by local journalists, the league and students of Western Connecticut State University.

The candidates have agreed to four more debates before Election Day on Nov. 3.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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