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Pureval, Chabot clash in intense debate over gun rights, tariffs and Western Hills Viaduct

Posted at 2:45 PM, Oct 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-25 19:14:01-04

You can watch the whole debate in the video player above.

CINCINNATI -- Candidates in one of the nation's most closely watched congressional races met Wednesday night at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater for a heated debate in which nearly every question became an opportunity to launch an attack.

The polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight predicts Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, a Democrat, faces a steep uphill battle in his quest to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Chabot and turn Ohio's 1st Congressional District blue, but he's dealt with sharp odds before.

His 2016 win over predecessor Tracy Winkler was a major upset in local politics. The possibility of a repeat performance appeared to fuel his and Chabot's efforts to discredit one another with accusations of financial impropriety, campaign sabotage and -- within the first five minutes -- associations with terrorists.


Although both men accused each other of spending taxpayer dollars poorly and attempting secret, dubiously legal reconnaissance, this accusation came only from Chabot and was a reference to Pureval's time with the law firm White & Case. The firm settled some terrorism-related lawsuits against Libya with Congressional approval while Pureval was an employee, although he did not personally work on those cases.

"Mr. Pureval can claim he didn't work for those terrorists directly, but he had no problem taking a big salary, knowing how the firm was making its money," Chabot said Wednesday.

Over the course of the hour-long debate, during which WCPO anchor Tanya O'Rourke moderated and reporters Tom McKee, Kristen Swilley and Paula Christian asked questions, Chabot sought to position himself as an unglamorous but dedicated yin to a slick, shallow yang.

"This is a glory guy over here," he said of Pureval late in the debate. "He's got a great smile, he's a handsome guy, and that's just all great, but this is a nuts-and-bolts job. There are workhorses and there are show horses, and I don't think it's too hard to say which one he is and which one I am."

The 11-term congressman, who has held various Ohio offices since 1985, also described his opponent as a "wannabe career politician" and claimed Pureval was a puppet of Democratic leaders such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi. (Pureval denies he would support Pelosi for Speaker of the House if Democrats won control.)

Pureval, whose pitch to the public has revolved around appealing to a yen for progress and positivity -- his campaign runs ads in which he explains his name means "sunshine" -- smiled through much of the debate, including during Chabot's "show horse" comment.

His bid for the seat relies on reversing Chabot's dichotomy and depicting himself as a necessary antithesis to a politician he claims has accomplished little in decades of stagnant service.

However, his campaign has been dogged by allegations of improper spending. Still at issue when the debate began: Evidence that Pureval's team cut a $16,427 check from a court of clerks re-election campaign account to pay for polling services related to his congressional run.

Here are the most important questions we asked them and (a summary of) what they said.


An appeals court this week denied a motion to delay the Ohio Elections Commission hearing on Pureval's campaign spending. Mr. Pureval, if the elections commission determines there is a campaign spending violation, do you believe you can still serve in Congress?

Pureval characterized the investigation as the result of a misunderstanding and denied having deliberately violated any campaign finance regulations. According to him, the poll in question was meant to measure his prospects in both a distant future re-election campaign for clerk of courts as well as a then-hypothetical run for Congress, so his lawyers advised him to take money from both his federal and local accounts.

"If it turns out that we were incorrect, we'll remedy the situation immediately," he said, adding he still believes he is the right choice for the seat.

Chabot called the explanation inaccurate and said Pureval's attempt to delay the hearing was an intentional effort to postpone an unfavorable finding until after the election. He also accused Pureval of sending campaign operatives to his events in order to gather intelligence.

"I've never had a sleazier campaign against me than this," he said.

The U.S. has imposed tariffs on many countries to try and correct what's seen as the trade imbalance, and many of those tariffs affect companies right in the 1st District. Tell us a specific encounter you've had with a business in the 1st District that's concerned about being less competitive or being unfairly treated with these tariffs and what you've counseled them to do to stay competitive.

Neither candidate fully answered the question, although both said they had spoken to representatives of Procter & Gamble. Chabot also mentioned Standard Textile Company; Pureval pivoted his focus to farmers.

Chabot, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairs House Small Business Committee, professed he had initially been skeptical of the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration but believed a strong-handed approach could be necessary to open foreign markets to more American products.

In his response, Pureval took an opportunity to oppose President Donald Trump's tweet-heavy style of economic governance but also blamed the circumstances that led to the trade imbalance on Chabot and other long-serving politicians who -- he said -- failed to take a stand.

Chabot began a rebuttal that started with asserting he had worked to take a stand on trade policy throughout his career and swiftly veered into a discussion of abortion before his time ended.

The Tri-State has several major infrastructure concerns, including the Brent Spence Bridge and the Western Hills Viaduct, which are both in disrepair. How should funding to address these crumbling structures be secured?

Pureval once again claimed Chabot had contributed to the problem through inaction and said he intended to join the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in order to advocate for fixes to Greater Cincinnati's long-standing infrastructure woes at a federal level. He also said he planned to partner with local officials to find funding for repairs to the viaduct, which at one point in 2017 shed a chunk of concrete that struck the windshield of a car beneath.

Chabot said Pureval was oversimplifying the process of securing money for infrastructure repairs and over-representing the power of federal officials to influence local government action. Despite roadblocks of which he claimed Pureval was unaware, Chabot said he had worked to help local government bandage infrastructure wounds throughout the city and was actively involved in bringing Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to the 1st District to examine the viaduct.

"I sometimes wonder if a chunk of the Western Hills Viaduct didn't hit him in the head, he's been so wrong on the Western Hills Viaduct time and time again," Chabot said.

Pureval scolded him for the joke, which he said was in poor taste.

Many parts of the 1st District are ground zero for heroin addiction. Issue 1 could change Ohio law to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison and promote more addiction treatment. Do you support Issue 1?

Chabot misspoke initially, claiming he was for the proposed constitutional amendment before listing reasons he believed it was ill-conceived. (He later clarified he had always been opposed.) He said he instead believed legislation such as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which he co-sponsored and President Barack Obama signed in 2016, represented a better set of solutions to the region's opioid epidemic.

That piece of legislation mandated the creation of a federal task to create more ethical standards for prescribing pain medication and made more money available for public health agencies to purchase naloxone, among other provisions.

Pureval said he was still weighing the pros and cons of Issue 1, which advocates have framed as a compassionate response to drug addiction and opponents have characterized as a too-soft stance that would endanger communities and be difficult to reverse.

Many of the commercials aired on your behalf, whether they are authorized by your campaign or presented by outside groups, make claims and statements that are borderline inaccurate or sometimes outright false. Do you believe personally everything that's in commercials about your opponent, and if you don't, why are they airing?

Both candidates said yes.

Five people were shot when a gunman opened fire at the Fifth Third Center last month. Do you think there should be any new gun restrictions to deal with the epidemic of mass shootings?

"Absolutely," Pureval said, enumerating his support for bans on bump stocks and "military-style assault weapons" as well as for universal background checks on prospective gun purchasers.

He also labeled Chabot a "lackey of the gun lobby," a description to which Chabot objected onstage.

"You said earlier that I was lobbying for terrorists, Mr. Chabot," Pureval said.

"Okay," Chabot replied. "Are you finished?"

Chabot, touting his endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police and his personal role in honoring the officers who responded to the scene of the Fifth Third Center shooting, said he believed strengthening enforcement of existing gun laws would be more effective than passing new ones.

"I'm on the judiciary committee," he said. "I've debated this. I've heard all the arguments about it. I don't think we would make ourselves any safer if we just passed new gun control legislation."

He also said he supported allocating funding to improve security at schools that might be targets of gun violence.

There is a showdown possibly looming on the Mexico border with the United States because of people trying to come to the U.S. from Guatemala and Honduras. President Trump has said that he would authorize the use of the military to handle this situation. Is this the right approach to handling immigrants?

"The so-called caravan that's heading for the United States is, I think, a danger to our country," Chabot said. "We have the right to be a sovereign nation. We shouldn't have thousands and thousands of people who decide they're going to come to the country -- really, to break into our country."

He also said he believed Trump's proposed wall along the border, which remains a significant campaign point for Republicans, would be a positive step toward controlling immigration from Central America. 

Pureval, the son of immigrants, did not have a chance to answer the question. The remainder of time dedicated to it was given over to an unprompted exchange of accusations about campaign spending and Pureval's work with White & Case.

Tell us something specific you've done in the last seven days that proves to voters you're out for their needs -- not those of special interests or corporations?

Neither candidate did, but Pureval said his refusal to accept corporate PAC money proved his dedication to remaining independent.

Chabot pointed to his own history of accolades from Citizens Against Government Waste, a PAC focused on promoting fiscally conservative policies. The organization has repeatedly named Chabot a "Taxpayer Hero" for working to, according to a news release, "enact historic tax cuts, support deregulation and help ignite America's economic boom."

Where do you stand on the #MeToo movement, particularly in light of the manner in which the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings were handled? Do you believe the woman who accused him of sexual misconduct?

This was the only question on which the candidates agreed, although neither gave a definitive answer about whether they believed Christine Blasey-Ford's account of having been sexually assaulted by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at a high school party. Instead, both blamed Kavanaugh's contentious confirmation process on Washington's culture -- "The way that this was handled did a disservice to the country," Chabot said -- and professed a belief that allegations of sexual assault should always be investigated.

Pureval, who was among the speakers at Cincinnati's 2017 Women's March, said he admired the courage of women who shared their stories in the #MeToo movement.