Gwen Combs, Jonathan Dunkley, Paul Spencer and state Rep. Clarke Tucker — the four candidates in the lively field for the Democratic nomination for the Second U.S. Congressional District seat — faced off in a one-hour debate tonight hosted by KATV (if you missed it, you can still watch on KATV’s Facebook page).
See the liveblog below for a play by play. It was a mostly friendly tussle, with little disagreement between the candidates.
Tucker hedged on single payer, saying he would support an option to buy in to Medicare but was reluctant to support a Medicare for All plan that could spell the end for employer-sponsored insurance. The other candidates all expressed strong support for “Medicare for All” plans.
Here’s the blow by blow. Combs kicked things off with the debate’s one moment of comic relief, directing a barb at the network hosting the event…
Gwen Combs starts by slamming Sinclair! Thanks them for taking a break from biased programming to allow an “unscripted debate.” Ha. (The debate’s moderator, Chris May, was one of the news anchors who had to read from the creepy Sinclair script on recent broadcasts). She says her focus is on health care, pre-k and financial security for families.
Clarke Tucker says he’s a seventh-generation Arkansan. I truly can’t stand when politicians talk about how how many generations they’ve been in a state, but maybe that’s just me. Says he has dealt with a Republican majority and learned how to work across the aisle. He speaks about the cancer diagnosis he received right around the time French Hill voted to do away with the Affordable Care Act (Tucker is now cancer free, but says that the experience made the health care debate personal for him, as he now has a pre-existing condition).
Jonathan Dunkley says he’s a fighter and winner. He thanks his friends and family, and tells the story that has been a key to his campaign materials: While doing his nine-year-old daughter’s hair, she asked him what he was doing to fight Donald Trump. He decided to run for Congress.
Paul Spencer: “We need to offer more than just who I am…we need to focus on the needs of the people of the Second District.” Spencer says he has common-sense ideas that go beyond anger at the Trump administration.
Asked about the VA, Tucker said he would be “hesitant” to privatize the system. He says he’s open to a proposal to offer Americans the option to buy in to Medicare, and suggested that would be a better option for veterans than privatization.
“Absolutely not,” Dunkley says regarding privatizing the VA. He argues for “Medicare for all.”
Spencer likewise opposes VA privatization. “I’ve been espousing single payer, or Medicare for all, since the beginning of the campaign, and for years prior.”
Combs, herself an Air Force veteran, says that “privatization is not necessarily the best thing” but veterans should have options to exercise choice in seeking care. Combs notes that she also supports single payer health care.
Tucker is the only candidate to express doubt on single payer. He says he is hesitant to go that route because it could upset people who would lose employer-sponsored health insurance if it was replaced by a “Medicare for all” system.”
Dunkley says Tucker’s opposition is telling and that he is missing the actual concerns of struggling voters in the district. “Very few people like the health insurance they get from their employer,” he says.
On taxes, Dunkley says that the best option for raising revenue is legalized marijuana. Spencer says Democrats’ focus should be on repealing the giant tax cuts recently passed by the GOP. “My proposal would be to go back to the progressive tax system we used to have,” Spencer says. The GOP tax plan was both “the height of fiscal irresponsibility” and a break for billionaires at the same time that health care benefits
Combs agrees with Spencer that the recent GOP tax cuts, weighted toward the rich and corporations, were an “abomination.”
Asked whether he would repeal the Trump tax cuts, Tucker says “it’s a matter of priorities,” and notes certain tax cuts that he voted for while in the legislature. He says he would keep the portion of the Trump tax cuts focused on the middle class but overall the cuts were too focused on the rich and “giveaways to corporations.” He trumpets his support for the earned income tax credits.
On gun control, Spencer: “I think we need to take a stand against assault-style rifles. … We need to make it very obvious to the gun manufacturers and the gun lobby that you can be regulated.” Spencer says the Second Amendment is not “sacrosanct” and that politicians have been held hostage to the NRA. He argues that people are ready for “common sense” gun control legislation despite the NRA’s reputation as political kingmakers in Arkansas.
Combs: “We have to look at safety as our number one priority.” Argues for closing loopholes and assault weapon bans, and says she will not take money from the NRA.
Tucker notes his history of pushing gun control legislation. He then gives the general-election talk: He’s a gun owner, hunts, etc. It’s not about responsible gun owners like himself, he says, it’s about closing loopholes and common-sense legislation. “We can protect the Second Amendment at the same time as we protect Americans’ lives,” he says.
Dunkley zooms out: “This is about senseless gun violence.” Argues for more CDC research into gun violence.
On the Robert Mueller investigation of Trump and on congressional checks and balances:
Combs: “Right now we have an executive branch that’s governing through tweets.” She says she supports pursuing impeachment. She says it’s a “disgrace” that there have been rumors of French Hill being nefariously involved with Russia.
“We have to see where the evidence comes in” on the Russian investigation, Tucker says, but argues that the evidence is clear that there was Russian meddling. He says that Congress — and French Hill — are failing to provide a check and balance on the executive branch and failing to act on Russian meddling.
“We absolutely have to allow Robert Mueller continue their investigation,” Dunkley says. He says that Hill has utterly failed to provide a check on Trump.
Spencer says it’s “premature” to be talking about impeachment. He says that the Russian investigation has become a “feeding frenzy and a distraction” (he says there may in fact be more concern about Trump’s possible violations of the emoluments clause). He’s not a fan of Trump, he says, but focuses on the importance of following due process and seeing where the evidence comes in.
On DACA (and whether they would trade funding for Trump’s Wall in exchange for protections for Dreamers):
Tucker says there’s “plenty of common ground.” He says that it’s “astonishing” that Congress hasn’t acted to protect Dreamers. He says that it’s important to protect the border, but Trump’s proposed Wall would be ineffective, a waste of taxpayer money, and send the wrong message to the world.
Dunkley, whose father came to America from Jamaica, says that “we don’t need a Wall.” He says that Trump’s language about immigrants is “insulting. … These are my neighbors and my friends. … We need to develop a clear path to citizenship.”
Spencer: “You don’t negotiate when it comes to human beings. It’s crass and vile that the people that run this country would use these children to get a wall. … We have a human right to migrate. That doesn’t mean we throw open the borders. There needs to be a sensible way to regulate our borders. … It’s an abomination to consider that we would use a wall when talking about human lives.”
Combs: “Humans aren’t bargaining trips. We need to have a clean DREAM Act that gives a path to citizenship to people who have been here their whole lives.”
On trade, and Trump’s adventures in tariff wars:
Dunkley: “We’ve got to get away from this unilateral approach as if we’re the only nation on earth. … There are real costs to this.” Spencer talks about his background growing up in steel country. “The drastic approach of Mr. Trump is beyond what needs to happen,” he says. “There’s a lot of braggadocio coming out of the White House.” Combs: “I oppose the tariffs. … The tariffs put us in a situation where some of our neediest and some of our hardest-working people are being injured.” She says that Trump’s volatile tweeting is putting Americans in jeopardy across a range of issues.
“I support free trade but I also support fair trade,” Tucker says. After that soundbite, he says the issue is hard to boil down to a soundbite. Says that Trump’s approach is ill-considered and dangerous, though it is important to consider the interests of American workers in trade policy.
And the closing statements…
Spencer: When it comes to legislating, “the primacy of human dignity has to come first.” Bestowing personhood on corporations has undercut the basic principles of “one person, one vote.” He says that too many politicians are treating human beings as a commodity or a bargaining chip.
Dunkley: “Our campaign is about a people-centered approach.” Attacks French Hill for voting with Donald Trump every time.
Tucker: “I love this country.” He says that we have a lot of work to do, and that it is time for this generation to step up as generations before have. His grandmother told him to run for Congress: “Clarke, you need to do this for your country.” Then the dramatic conclusion: “Cancer does not have a political party, hunger does not have a political party, hopes and dreams do not have a political party. It’s about a love of this country, who we want to be as a people and what kind of nation we want to be.”
Combs: “As the only woman, the only military veteran, and the only public educator running for this seat, I have a really unique perspective to be able to represent everyday Arkansans. … America needs change and it starts right here in Arkansas.”
From the original post:
Gwen Combs, Jonathan Dunkley, Paul Spencer and state Rep. Clarke Tucker will take questions from Roby Brock of Talk Business and Janelle Lilley of KATV, with KATV’s Chris May moderating. Hopefully May won’t be reading from a creepy script.
The debate will also be livestreamed via KATV’s Facebook page, as well as the Talk Business & Politics website and Facebook page.
Tucker, a well-regarded two-term legislator, is the establishment favorite. Combs, Dunkley and Spencer — all of whom have made “Medicare for all” a central campaign plank — have all made a strong push for the progressive wing of the party. Spencer and Combs are well known for their activism — Spencer as a dogged campaigner for ethics reforms in the state and Combs as an organizer of the the Women’s March for Arkansas and the founder of Be the Change Alliance, which organized in support of preserving the Affordable Care Act. Dunkley is a less familiar name in political circles but his campaign manager was previously the state director and national LGBTQ outreach director for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
The four are vying to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill, who could be vulnerable in what is expected to be a strong year for Democrats. Independent polling has shown Tucker trailing Hill in a hypothetical matchup by a margin in the single digits.