The Arizona Republic

CD8 candidates spar on ‘phony’ doctor attacks

- Agnel Philip Reach Agnel Philip at aphilip@gannett.com, on Twitter at @agnel88_philip or on Facebook.

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.

On Friday, the two 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 won’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-$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.

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