One of the races that all voters in Boone County will help decide is the U.S. House of Representatives District 3 contest.
Current Republican Cong. Steve Womack is challenged by Libertarian Michael Kalagias and Democrat Celeste Williams.
The three faced off in a debate last week on Arkansas PBS television where they were met with questions regarding their positions on some issues.
In opening statements, Williams said that as a nurse for 20 years, she might not be the typical candidate for Congress. But she said Americans are frustrated with politicians who sow discord rather than solving everyday problems like the health and economic crisis underway.
“Willful ignorance is not what American exceptionalism is all about and it isn’t patriotic,” she said. She called for new leaders who will create a roadmap to a better future where people don’t go broke just because they get sick, where educational opportunities abound and the dignity of work for a living wage is restored.
Womack said that during his almost 10 years in Congress, he’s had a front row seat to problems facing the country. But he’s also seen the specific problems facing the residents of District 3.
Although it’s often said that this will be the most important election of modern times, he thinks 2020 will be just that. It will choose the path the country will take, be it limiting government to avoid too much intervention or one that expands programs that will burden future generations with overwhelming debt.
“Those are the ideals I fight for every day in Washington and I’m looking forward to two more years to do just that same thing,” Womack said.
Kalagias said he is a retired school teacher and a U.S. Navy veteran, but he’s also a veteran of service on a major non-profit organization’s board of directors and still serves as a volunteer firefighter.
Kalagias said the interest on the country’s $27 trillion debt is over $300 billion a year, which isn’t sustainable. That needs to be fixed by convincing citizens they need to vote differently because it has turned out to be the same “bad government” whether Democrats or Republicans are in power.
“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity,” Kalagias said. “Stop the insanity; vote Libertarian with me.”
The candidates were asked what should be done about essential workers, often minorities, who are left more exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic than other sections of the population.
Womack said the pandemic hit the American shores and gripped the entire country, but it came without a playbook. The country was caught somewhat unprepared in terms of personal protective equipment, but also for the potential economic calamity it would bring.
The difference in cultural norms in minority communities where people often live and work in close proximity to one another and don’t have the opportunity to practice social distancing left them more vulnerable, Womack said.
He said the country is still struggling to find that “sweet spot” between keeping the economy going and maintaining public safety.
Williams agreed that social issues are more serious in minority communities. But she said there actually was a playbook left by the Obama administration and the Trump administration dismantled the pandemic preparedness team.
Williams said the country is suffering due to a lack of leadership, and both health and economic issues must be addressed together.
“The least privileged among us always bear the brunt of bad policy,” Kalagias countered.
He went on to say the country was caught “flat footed” not due to a bad president, or two, but because of decades of bad policy. He said the country was presented with bad data and good policy can’t be based on bad data. Companies that had tests for the novel coronavirus weren’t allowed to market them in this country without FDA and CDC approval.
The candidates were asked how they would vote to prioritize tax dollars requested by businesses who are finding it difficult to survive.
Williams said her bias has always been to put money into the hands of everyday citizens. She said the government should stop trying to “bail out” cruise lines and airlines and concentrate more on reinvesting tax dollars in the taxpayers so they can survive while unemployed due to no fault of their own.
Kalagias said offering financial help is impossible because there are no reserves from which to draw that money. Any money would have to be borrowed and that puts an undue burden on future generations. And that’s the problem with continued deficits: There’s no money left over during a time of crisis.
Womack said the CARES Act, which he voted for, put citizens in a moral dilemma. They were guaranteed $600 a week in pandemic unemployment benefits and is some cases that was more money than they made working. Job creators struggling to get back to work couldn’t find the workers they needed.
In addition, he said there was little liability protection for businesses who were using best practices for protecting employees and customers who might contract the virus and face lawsuits as a result.
Any further stimulus should be temporary and transparent, he said.
The candidates were asked to respond to the ballooning debt coupled with massive tax cuts for the very wealthy and multinational corporations.
Womack said the country enjoyed record revenues for three years after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and before the pandemic. He said the problem isn’t that the country taxes too little, but it spends too much. The act almost doubled the minimum tax deduction and the child tax credit, which helped low-earning workers.
Williams said the country has seen record deficit spending every year since 2016. The country also is suffering under a record trade deficit.
She agreed that the country is saddling future generations with overwhelming debt, which threatens national security. But lack of revenue also threatens programs like Social Security and Medicare. A budget that Womack proposed offered cuts to both programs.
Kalagias said the country has increased national debt during all 10 years of Womack’s tenure, but it wasn’t doing a lot better prior to that time -- debt has increased since 1957.
No budget has been passed since Womack took office, he added, and a balanced budget is a must.
Womack rebutted that the budget he proposed in 2018 balanced the budget over a 10-year period. He said he would yield time to Williams to enumerate any proposed cuts to Medicare, because there were none. The only “change” to Social Security, he said, was to make it impossible for someone to collect disability and unemployment compensation at the same time. There was a provision to raise the age for eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67 to match Social Security. Without making a small change like that, it would be impossible to tackle the bigger issues, he said.
In closing remarks, Williams said the country needs different leadership that understands the struggles of everyday Arkansans.
“If we want to do better, then we need to elect a different person,” Williams said.
Womack said all issues raised in the debate were important ones, but he stressed the importance of the candidate knowing the district he or she would represent in Congress. He enumerated issues that affect voters in the district.
“These are the things that are important to everyday Arkansans that don’t show up on the national radar,” Womack said.
Kalagias said it doesn’t matter if Democrats or Republicans are elected because it will mean more bad government as in the past. Change is necessary, he said, but the way to make change is to take those parties out of the majority.
“If no party has a majority, then the people have power again,” Kalagias said.