Experience, credibility and change central topics at U.S. Senate debate
The Democratic primary elections nationwide have been marked by incumbent moderates challenged by a wide array of younger, more progressive candidates with fewer years of political experience under their belts. Meanwhile, Republicans are undergoing an identity shift of their own as the party moves farther to the right.
On Monday night, these new rifts within the parties were on full display before a full house at a primary debate at the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington. Registered party members will have the opportunity to determine the future of the first state’s political identity at the voting booth on Sept. 6.
In the main event, incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Carper sought to defend his seat against his primary opponent, Kerri Evelyn Harris. Harris, a political newcomer from Dover operating a grassroots campaign, took aim at Carper’s political record, while Carper repeatedly pointed to key legislation passed throughout his career.
Republican primary candidate Gene Truono also appeared, but spoke alone to open the event. His primary opponent, Rob Arlett, a County Councilman of Sussex County, declined to participate due to scheduling conflicts.
The event, hosted by The News Journal, asked candidates to address questions submitted by readers and panelists.
Carper, 71, a Delaware senator for 18 years, has never lost an election. He has previously served as Delaware’s governor and the state’s U.S. representative, and recently gained the direct support of Joe Biden in the race. Harris, 38, has gained unexpected momentum throughout the summer, garnering a dedicated progressive-left following. She has received an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive candidate from New York who defeated top ranking House Democrat Joseph Crowley in a June primary.
Carper and Harris agreed on many issues in principle yet differed on their perspectives on the solutions to those issues. Climate change, corruption, immigration and healthcare were key points of discussion.
“Harris and I agree about the right thing to do,” Carper said at the debate. “But the question is, how do you get the ‘right thing’ done?”
Carper’s political record, drawing from a career that spans four decades, and his work ethic were central to many of his arguments in the debate against Harris. Harris, who has never held elected office, repeatedly questioned his credibility as a liberal and referenced instances in Carper’s political history which she said disqualify him from being reelected.
Harris, relying on a platform that stresses being in touch with Delaware constituents, cited her experiences as a military veteran and a Delaware community organizer.
“Living in Delaware, I know that oftentimes people will pat themselves on the back, thinking that they’re helping people, and actually they’re not,” Harris said. “Senator Carper, when he was governor, believed people should work in order to receive welfare. As a result, more people are in poverty than ever in the State of Delaware. You say he’s experienced because he’s been in office; that’s wrong because his experience has actually hurt us.”
When asked if they would advocate a constitutional amendment specifically establishing equal rights for women, Harris answered “Yes,” and Carper answered “I have.”
The candidates were also questioned about their stances on health care, a critical topic in the 2018 midterms. Carper claimed he played a key role in the passage of the market-based Affordable Care Act (ACA) and believes it is a starting point from which better healthcare coverage can be extended to all citizens. Harris stated that healthcare coverage should be legally recognized as a human right and publicly funded.
The debate then turned from health care to immigration, which has grown increasingly controversial and politically pivotal since the 2016 presidential election. If elected, Harris would advocate the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because she believes that all efforts to reform the agency have failed. Carper blames the destructiveness of U.S. foreign policy for causing the refugee crisis. He claimed that the nation’s immigration problems would be resolved with the election of a majority of Democrats to the Senate.
Regarding the environment, Harris criticized Carper for voting for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline in North Dakota and approving the nomination of former Governor Rick Perry to U.S. Secretary of Energy. She regarded these decisions as dangerous to the environment.
To ward off the effects of climate change, Harris called for the creation of a “Green New Deal” designed to create jobs in more environmentally friendly industries.
As an alternative to Harris’ ideas, Carper, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, outlined his plan to regulate automobile and factory emissions to stymie air pollution and use tax incentives to promote renewable energy usage.
Regarding campaign finance reform, Carper said that more laws ought to be passed so that citizens “know where money in politics is coming from and where it’s going.”
Harris’ grassroots campaign has promised never to accept donations from corporations, declaring corrupt corporations to be “enemies of our democracy.”
Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour is also a major tenet of Harris’ campaign. According to Harris, the current minimum wage is too low to meet people’s basic needs, and she cited the difficulties of making simple purchases like diapers for her son. She does not expect that increasing the minimum wage will overburden business owners.
“People are hurting,” Harris said. “If you’re putting in so many hours at work and still not making ends meet, that’s a big problem. We have a government that works in tax cuts for the wealthy but not for the working class. When I speak to small business owners, they’re onboard because they know their workers’ money goes right back into the economy.”
In the closing rapid-fire round, during which the candidates were only allowed to answer yes or no, Carper said he too supported a $15 minimum wage.
Before Carper and Harris took to the debate floor, Truono articulated his platform on many issues and took aim at his absent opponent.
Truono claimed that Arlett’s refusal to appear in the debate was evidence of his insufficient commitment to the constituents. Truono also criticized Arlett for alleged tax evasion.
“My opponent chose not to be here tonight,” Truono said. “My opponent chose not to pay his taxes. How can we send someone to Washington [D.C.] who has not paid their federal and state taxes to make policy decisions on taxes?”
Truono, a financial services worker and former PayPal executive, opposes expanding Medicare to all citizens because of the potential cost to taxpayers. In addition, he believes an expanded Medicare program would potentially disrupt the majority of healthcare recipients who receive coverage through a private employer by making healthcare the responsibility of the federal government.
Truono advocated instead for refining the existing insurance market for the benefit of the 15 percent of people without any healthcare coverage.
“Medicare for all is estimated to cost $32 trillion over the next ten years,” Truono claimed. “That is not sustainable.”
Truono, a self-proclaimed constitutionalist, said he would not approve strict gun control laws if elected to the Senate and that gun violence can be reduced without violating the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This can be accomplished, according to Truono, by reforming mental health care to better treat potential mass-shooters and improving the ability of the police to quickly respond to emergencies and decentralizing gun control.
When questions regarding President Donald J. Trump were asked, Truono offered approval of the President’s nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court and the tax cuts passed by Congress in December 2017.
However, Truono did speak out against Trump’s other major policies, particularly those regarding immigration.
“I think some of [Trump’s] decisions on policy, his major decisions on policy I don’t agree with,” Truono said. “Things like the issue that happened at the border, the policy which created the separation of children [from their families] which were only ended because there was an outcry.”
Truono advocated an immigration policy which would prioritize the entry of foreigners into the country based on their need for work.
Registered party members will be able to vote in their party’s primary elections on Sept. 6. General elections will take place on Nov. 6.