We first got to know behavioral health and investment executive Steve O'Donnell as a mild-mannered, bookish policy wonk in a field of five candidates for the Democratic nomination -- as described in a hysterically presumptuous Comet endorsement.
On Monday we saw him as the Democratic nominee debating Republican incumbent congressman Tim Murphy, for the first and only occasion.
"Oil companies. Drug companies. Insurance companies," said O'Donnell, ticking them off with his hands, listing the problems as he sees it with his opponent. "He voted against letting the government negotiate for drug prices."
He even dropped the H-bomb at one point in the program -- something I had not heard in what seems like years.
"Haliburton," he added to the list.
Murphy for his part presented himself as a maverick -- someone willing to take on his own party. As one recent example he cited his opposition to the bailout. The first plan was bad enough, and the second, the one which ultimately passed, was the same only festooned with pork.
O'Donnell supported both the first and the second recovery plans.
"If we didn't pass it, the dam would have broken on Wall Street and would have washed away both Wall Street and Main Street." O'Donnell criticized Murphy for not "bellying up to the bar" and voting to approve the measure.
Questions were submitted by the audience, which were organized by a panel sitting at a desk, and then handed in short stacks to the moderator. On health care, the moderator chose a startlingly worded question.
"Do you support a single-payer health care?" She added for the audience's edification that "single-payer" plans involve the government paying all health care bills, but not taking over the apparatus of doctors and hospitals and health care providers; it still entailed a free market albeit with government intervention, and so it is not what most would consider socialism.
O'Donnell said he is on record supporting single-payer health care, and still favors it. He did not make reference to the fact that neither Presidential candidate is proposing a single-payer plan.
Murphy opposed a single-payer system, favoring measures to bring down the cost of health care or to help citizens save for their care, and cited a record of supporting technocratic, largely conservative measures.
O'Donnell criticized this as nibbling at the edges. The system is broken, he claimed, and it needs to be fixed.
On energy, Tim Murphy said he wants America to open new lands for drilling for oil and to exploiting this region's vast coal reserves. Use the money that we make from this, he says, to clean our power plans, and for next generation technologies, wind, solar, nuclear, everything. We can pursue it all at once.
Steve O'Donnell pledged allegiance to coal, absolutely. He said it is a big part of our region's economic future. However, he criticized the idea of pursuing such a broad drilling and fossil fuels regime, at the expense of aggressively pursuing new energy solutions now. Murphy said he didn't understand O'Donnell's position on fossil fuels, then.
Murphy was well-rehearsed and never at a loss for words. Twice he touted his own experience as Congress's only PhD in psychology, saying, "I've seen the worst of people come out, and I want to continue that mission," specifically by cleaning up the mess on Wall Street, and by drilling for resources so we don't bankroll our enemies overseas.
O'Donnell admitted frankly during the introduction that this was his first debate, and was grateful for the opportunity. Still, he was forceful throughout, and scored the biggest laughs. "Let me give you an idea about my background," he said, just as the warning light turned red. "I grew up in Homewood ... uh, and that's the end!" he shrugged happily.
During the last question, Murphy made reference to what he calls O'Donnell's "Ten Point Plan to Raise Taxes," citing examples like the inheritance tax and upper brackets of income, Medicare and Medicaid taxes.
O'Donnell didn't respond directly to this, but expressed displeasure at the "desperate, negative, false" attacks Murphy is running about O'Donnell's supposed business dealings, stressing that he can do so because of contributions from oil, drug and insurance companies for whom he does business in Congress.
The Democratic challenger frequently criticized his opponent for voting with George Bush "from 80 to 97% of the time" from 2002 through 2006; scaling back from the President since then he says is "too little, too late." Murphy again cited differences with the President and rocky relationships with fellow Republicans, though sometimes these play out behind the scenes.
O'Donnell assured his audience that as the next member of Congress, "if the next President of the United States is wrong" or mistaken about something, he said with a nod, "You're going to hear about it."