After shaking Republican opponent Dan David’s hand, Madeleine Dean arose from the table she had spent the past 70 minutes behind and addressed the crowd of about 250 people at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park on Oct. 4.
This was the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 4th District’s closing statement, and she wanted her final words to stick.
“What people say to me at their doors is, ‘Will you bring back decency? Will you be a part of rhetoric that is based in fact and truth? Will you be a part of problem solving across the aisle at this time of great intolerance?’” Dean said. “Yes I will.”
An impromptu soundtrack arose beneath Dean’s words. Some David supporters in the front rows snickered, offering side comments and jeers as the Democrat spoke. Jill Zipin, cofounder of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, said afterwards she found the behavior “ironic.”
“She’s talking about decency and civility, and they’re showing a lack of it,” Zipin said.
Such was the final image of a heated debate, jointly presented by The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council and the League of Women Voters, during which supporters of both candidates often applauded key talking points, despite the chiding of moderator Joshua Runyan, the Jewish Exponent’s editor-in-chief. It is the League’s policy that audience members do not clap.
Some political prognosticators label the race as leaning in Dean’s favor, but David didn’t hold back in Elkins Park. He stumbled over his words early on before finding a rhythm, championing himself as a political outsider and businessman bent on breaking through partisan gridlock in Congress.
He often shifted the conversation to his work in China, and for good reason. Before announcing his run, David worked to expose millions of dollars in scams carried out by Chinese companies against U.S. investors, an effort that was chronicled in the documentary The China Hustle.
David ran unopposed in the Republican primary and has been slow to receive GOP-establishment support. That didn’t stop Edward Mackhouse from showing his appreciation at the debate. Mackhouse affixed a David button to his red “Make America Great Again” hat for the occasion.
“Even if he is a little weak on some things, he has a unique perspective,” Mackhouse said. “Also, the Democrats — how united they seem in the Senate and the House. They’d be very obstructionist if they got control to the House or the Senate. So even if people are not so strong for Trump, the major thing is to get elected.”
Dean, who serves in the state House of Representatives, beat Shira Goodman and Joe Hoeffel in the primary with 72.56 percent of the vote. Since winning, she hasn’t been shy to express her displeasure for President Donald Trump, continually attacking him during the debate for his policy decisions regarding the environment and immigration, among other things.
The candidates did, however, find common ground on Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively signaling the United States’ recognition of the latter as the capital of the nation. Dean, however, said she wished the move had been handled more diplomatically.
A particularly heated moment came after Dean was asked about pre-existing medical conditions.
“I am pleased that under the Affordable Care Act, pre-existing conditions are covered and that no one is prejudiced in his or her premiums in coverage health care as a result of their pre0existing condition. After all, I’m a woman. Maybe that’s a pre-existing condition. I’m not sure,” Dean said.
David seized on that comment in his response: “This kind of rhetoric is an overcorrection in our society today. What I’ve heard more and more over the past month is, ‘I’m not going to vote for you because you’re a man. Not because you’re a Republican, not a Democrat, because you’re a man.’ And I never thought I would hear that in this election. This kind of rhetoric is unproductive, and it’s not helping women.”
That wasn’t the only time David was on the offensive. He mentioned how his opponent had changed her position on several issues since the primary, and before the night was over he challenged Dean to another debate.
The candidates are scheduled for a forum on Oct. 21.