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Md. Democratic challenger goes after Andy Harris in first televised debate

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) (Bill Clark/AP)

Democratic congressional candidate Jesse Colvin attacked Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) over opioids, veterans and the environment during a debate that aired Thursday on cable television in rural Cecil County.

But the political newcomer’s inexperience made for several awkward back-and-forth exchanges between the candidates.

For his opening salvo, Colvin turned to the camera, stared intently and spoke directly to voters: “When was the last time you saw Dr. Harris? Did he look he excited to be there with you?”

“Congress is broken,” Colvin continued. “We have petty partisanship, special interests and career politicians. . . . We need a new generation of leadership that will put country over party.”

Harris looked noticeably more relaxed as he offered a sarcastic welcome to Colvin, who moved back into the district from Washington last year. “You know, I’m not a newcomer to this district. I have lived here for over 30 years,” he said. Harris told viewers he has delivered on creating jobs for Maryland residents and voting for the recent federal tax code overhaul, which he described as “the largest tax cut in American history.”

The debate was taped Wednesday. Colvin, Harris and libertarian candidate Jenica Martin sat side-by-side in plush barrel chairs set against a black backdrop, answering questions from moderator Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College associate professor.

Harris, 61, is the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation. He has represented the conservative 1st District since 2010, facing few serious challengers in his bids for reelection.

Colvin, a 34-year-old former Army Ranger, is trying to capi­tal­ize on opposition to President Trump and has mounted a robust campaign effort, drawing impressive fundraising totals, bipartisan endorsements and a large corps of volunteers.

Both men have been accused of ethics issues by the opposing political party in recent days and have vowed to correct any errors in their financial disclosures.

When the debate turned to the opiate crisis on the Eastern Shore, Harris called for building up families, making schools safe havens and enforcing laws against the importation of the deadly drug fentanyl. Federal money, he said, should be tailored to each community to combat the epidemic in the way that works best for them.

Colvin tried to criticize Harris’s support from drug companies.

“I don’t know how I could stand here with integrity if I was in the back pocket of Big Pharma,” he said, repeating a line he has used at fundraisers and with voters. “Mr. Harris has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Pharma.”

Harris, prepared for the attack, launched his rebuttal, criticizing Colvin for accepting campaign cash from House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

“It’s very interesting: Mr. Colvin says that I take all this money from drug companies, but he’s more than happy to take money from Steny Hoyer, who’s actually received twice as much,” Harris said. “So I’m going to ask you, Jesse, are you going to give Mr. Hoyer’s money back?”

Harris said drug companies that have donated to his campaign are leaders in the biomedical defense arena and produce anthrax vaccines for soldiers and Narcan, the fast-acting nose spray that can reverse opioid overdoses.

Colvin did not respond directly to Harris. Instead, he started to repeat his attack, then paused and was awkwardly silent for three seconds.

“Dr. Harris you’ve taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from . . .”

“That’s not true,” Harris interjected and chuckled.

Colvin faulted Harris, who is also a military veteran, for voting against mental-health funding that would have aided veterans in the district. The Democrat said that if he is elected, he will locate his district offices inside a Veterans Affairs facility in Cambridge, Md., which he criticized Harris for never visiting.

“It’s really easy to beat up on the VA,” Colvin said. “Shame on you, sir.”

Harris said he has visited other hospitals and speaks to veterans directly through their clubs and legions.

He pushed Colvin to join him in calling for veterans to have more choices for their care outside the VA system, then offered another zinger.

“I’m glad you could find your way to Cambridge, Jesse,” Harris said. “Because a newcomer to the district sometimes can’t find their way there.”