Debbie Lesko, Hiral Tipirneni trade barbs, emphasize bipartisan appeal in testy debate

Arizona Republic
Agnel Philip

Corrections & Clarifications: The story has been corrected to indicate Hiral Tipirneni supports expanding access to Medicare by allowing people under age 65 to buy into the program, and that Tipirneni and Debbie Lesko were nearly even in cash on hand entering October.

During a Friday debate U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko and her Democratic challenger for a West Valley congressional seat, Hiral Tipirneni, traded personal digs on campaign tactics, even as they attempted to portray themselves as bipartisan problem-solvers.

Tipirneni struck an aggressive tone making frequent interjections as Lesko spoke and calling for her to “be honest,” during the hourlong debate hosted by The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.

The tense back-and-forth capped a turbulent week in the campaign for the 8th District seat, which covers the West Valley from New River south to Goodyear and from Peoria west past the Sun cities, and includes Glendale, Peoria and Luke Air Force Base.

Lesko repeated her attacks on Tipirneni — a physician and cancer research advocate — as a “fake” and “phony” doctor. Those attacks prompted the state’s largest physician group to withdraw its endorsement of Lesko.

“We know you have an issue with the truth,” Tipirneni told Lesko in a reference to the attacks. “That’s been very clear this week.”

Lesko doubled down on her attacks on Tipirneni’s qualifications as a doctor, saying Tipirneni misled voters into thinking she still practiced medicine. She also said Tipirneni’s ideas were too liberal for the district.

“I’m a good fit for the district,” Lesko said. “I have a proven track record of working with both Republicans and Democrats in the Arizona Legislature.”

A long-running race
The pair have essentially battled for the Nov. 6 general election since Lesko won an April special election for the seat,which was vacated by the abrupt resignation of Republican Rep. Trent Franks.

Tipirneni surprised many when she came within 5 percentage points of Lesko in the special election. Republicans hold a 17-point voter registration advantage in the 8th District. Democrats haven’t won the seat since 1980.

Tipirneni’s campaign claims polling now shows her within 4 percentage points of Lesko, and the candidates were nearly even incash left to spend entering October.

On Friday, they took every opportunity to emphasize disagreements over health care, taxes and immigration policy.

Tipirneni cast herself as a political outsider who would use her experience solving problems in medicine in Congress.

“My work has never been on a partisan basis,” she said. “It’s about solving problems, improving lives and bringing a positive impact to people.”

Lesko portrayed herself as a “pragmatic conservative” who is willing to compromise to get things done.

While Lesko didn’t offer a full embrace of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, she said she fully supports the policies his administration has pursued and said her constituents appreciate that he has “shaken things up in Washington, D.C.”

Lesko doesn’t back away from ‘phony’ doctor ads
Lesko said wouldn’t buckle to pressure from the Arizona Medical Association and others to stop airing TV ads that call Tipirneni a “phony” and yard signs that call her a “fake doctor.” She said 8th District residents were “flabbergasted” to learn Tipirneni doesn’t actively practice medicine.

“I thought that it was important to point out to the voters that she is no longer a practicing doctor, but she’s parading around as one,” Lesko said.

Lesko has previously claimed Tipirneni stopped practicing medicine because of a medical-malpractice lawsuit.

Tipirneni said the case was settled without her involvement and didn’t lead to disciplinary action. She moved into advocacy after losing to cancer within two years her mother and 7-year-old nephew.

“Once you’re a doctor, you’re always a doctor,” she said. “If I wanted to treat somebody today, I could.”

Health care
The debate put the candidates’ differences on health care on display. The issue figures to be key in a district that’s home to several retirement communities.

Lesko said she would continue to roll back portions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” but supported some of its costlier provisions such as protections for pre-existing conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents’ health plans until they turn 26.

“The difference between us can’t be clearer,” she said. “It’s really obvious to me, she wants more government involvement, more control in our personal health care. I want more patient freedom.”

Tipirneni supports expanding access to Medicare by allowing people under age 65 to buy into the program, and backs increased funding for Social Security. But she pushed back on the Medicare-for-all proposals that some Democrats have embraced.

Tipirneni said Lesko lacks experience in health-care policy and hasn’t proposed anything on the issue since taking office.

Lesko acknowledged she didn’t currently have a health-care plan but said she would meet with relevant stakeholders and hear their concerns.

Border security, immigration reform
Both candidates said border security needs to be strengthened, but Tipirneni said Lesko’s support of a full border wall is impractical.

“We certainly can’t fund a $20 to $70 billion wall because it doesn’t just come out of the budget magically, you have to have money,” Tipirneni said.

Tipirneni also criticized the separation of migrant children from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. She said Congress needs to take a compassionate approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants, especially toward “dreamers” or recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Lesko said she’s voted to address illegal immigration and implement other reforms, pointing to legislation she supported that would have provided funding for a border wall, enhanced border security and granted legal status to DACA recipients. No Democrats voted for the bill.

“When the Democrats say they want to help the DACA recipients, they were given two chances, they voted ‘no’ twice,” she said.

Climate change
Lesko said she believes climate change is real but doesn’t know how much humans contribute to it. She voiced support for the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement last year saying it unfairly harmed American businesses.

“We have to have a balanced approach to climate control and climate change,” she said. “We need to realize that we need to reduce pollution, but we also want to not wreck the economy.”

Lesko’s comments are at odds with a recent report from the United Nations, which found the planet could start seeing the serious effects of human-caused climate change by 2040.

Her challenger said Arizona is missing an opportunity to lead the nation in clean energy.

“We have to make sure special-interest groups don’t get in the way of this,” Tipirneni said, pointing out Lesko’s ties to utility company Arizona Public Service.