WEST HARTFORD — Political debates are generally polite affairs, opportunities for candidates to spar gently over policy points while rehashing their positions and honing their images.
Thursday night’s televised debate at NBC Connecticut among the five Democrats running for an open U.S. Senate seat was the exception. The hour-long session featured a fiery exchange between one of the lesser-known candidates, a former software engineer from Greenwich named Lee Whitnum, and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, the front-runner in most public opinion polls.
The two sparred over aide to Israel, one of the central themes of Whitnum’s campaign. At one point, she calledMurphy a “whore” and saying he has his “head in the sand.”
“Elect somebody who is not pro-Israel,” Whitnum said. “I’m pro American. Elect somebody who doesn’t drink the[American Israel Public Affairs Committee] Kool-Aid.”
Murphy called Whitnum’s anti-Israel comments “out-of-bounds.”
“Israel needs friends today more now than ever,” he said. “Israel is our ally, Israel is our strategic partner. We need to stand with them today and there’s not going to be anything that makes me apologize for that…do you tell a friend when they’re wrong absolutely. But should we stand for this kind of outlandish language about Jewish Americans who advocate for their homeland, should we stand for a candidate who tries to pretend Israel had something to do with 9/11. We shouldn’t.”
In her closing statement, Whitnum responded. “I’m appalled that when I talk about the neo-conservatives somehow its twisted to be some sort of a racist comment,” she said.
Gesturing toward Murphy, who was standing next to her, Whitnum said, “I’m dealing with whore here who sells his soul to AIPAC, who will say anything for the job.”
When another candidate, state Rep. William Tong, came to Murphy’s defense, Whitnum lashed out at him too, calling him ignorant.
Whitnum, who believes the U.S. should stop aiding Israel, acknowledged after the debate that “I probably came on a little bit strong.” But she said it is important for “politicians [to] speak to us honestly.”
Murphy was taken aback by Whitnum’s harsh language.
“I had advocated for all of the candidates to be a part of these debates,” he said during his closing remarks. “I’d like to think twice about that with kind of awful language being used on the airwaves.”
This is the first debate that featured Whitnum. She sued the organizers of a similar forum in Norwich last month after she was prevented from participating. Whitnum is also enmeshed in a long legal battle with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Both Tong and Susan Bysiewicz said the debate organizers ought to think twice about inviting Whitnum to future debates. “After that performance, she’s proving she’s not adding a whole heck of a lot to the conversation,” Tong said.
“It’s one thing to have a policy disagreement,” added Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state. “It’s another thing get personal and start name-calling. That is exactly what the problem is in Washington right now. There s a lack of civility and certainly we don’t need this kind of name-calling.”
However Murphy, Tong and Bysiewicz all agreed that another lesser-known candidate, East Hartford’s Matthew Oakes, added a great deal to the discussion and should have a place in future debates.
Oakes told of facing the threat of foreclosure on his families home, being forced to leave college because he couldn’t afford it and other tales of hardship. “If you are poor, if you are disabled … then I’m your guy,” he said. “If you have a neighbor that you really enjoy talking to and having a beer with, then I’m your guy.”