Election security, gun violence, health care, immigration, climate change, and partisan politics were the topics addressed during a debate between candidates vying to represent Connecticut’s Fourth District in Congress: Democratic incumbent Jim Himes and Republican challenger Harry Arora. The debate, attended by about 400 people, took place Sunday afternoon, Oct. 21, at the Clune Center in Wilton. Despite exhortations not to, many applauded their favorites and grumbling undertones could be heard throughout the afternoon.
Moderator Kay Maxwell of the League of Women Voters presented the first question on any action Congress could or should take to ensure the integrity of the nation’s elections.
First to answer was Arora, who said that while the federal government should spend more money on ensuring all districts have the technology and ability to conduct fair elections, a more pressing problem was what he termed “information warfare.” This he described as “other people influencing elections by manipulating information.”
“That’s where we need to be on guard … that large media companies don’t sway or favor one participant or one party or one idea over the other,” he said, although he admitted he did not know how this could be achieved.
Himes, who is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said, “The U.S must speak with perfect clarity when we are attacked.” This was a reference, he said, to President Trump “who has waffled over these past two years” about Russian interference in elections.
One of many technical fixes that are possible, he said, is addressing the dozen or so states that don’t use paper ballots that would allow a post-election audit.
What he felt most passionately about, he said, is the “need to understand the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, North Korea — all the usual rogues — want us at each other’s throats. They want us to believe that the only truth that you can find is on Fox News if you lean right or MSNBC if you lean left or that crazy tweet is true. We’re citizens of the United States. We’re participants in a democracy. That is not free. That implies a responsibility to know that what you’re hearing, even if it makes you feel good, may not be true and it may be put out there to make you feel angry with your neighbor.”
Arora responded by saying voter fraud “is a very big thing” and people voting must show identification. Himes said election fraud is a “tiny, tiny thing” and that voters without IDs tend to be older black Americans in the South and “every single voter ID law you’ve seen has been promulgated in a red state.”
The discussion then moved to gun violence in schools and elsewhere.
With 36,000 Americans killed by firearms each year, two-thirds of those are suicides and many could be prevented, Himes said, with smart gun technology that would allow a gun to be fired only by its owner. He sponsored a bill to that effect two months ago, he said. He also pointed out some steps Connecticut took: universal registration — wherever someone buys a gun they undergo a background check — limits on assault weapons, and limits on the number of rounds in a magazine. He said he would work to take that to the federal level.
Arora said any gun laws should “actually reduce violence; number two, they are implementable … are they in line with our values and Constitution? So all of those three principles allow us to come to a set of laws that generate consensus, agreement and progress.”
He added gun owners and those who do not own guns need to be brought together. Arora said he will have credibility with “both sides” to get universal background check laws done. That is the “easiest, most important thing.”
Both men said they do not own any guns themselves.
On the issue of health care, Arora claimed the Affordable Care Act( ACA) “has broken our private insurance system. … if you take the three criteria I always use: affordability, access, and choice.”
He said there should be one market for people with pre-existing conditions that will be subsidized, and a second market for everyone else that would allow more options. “The private market will work more dynamically,” he said.
Himes responded by saying there are 20 million people today with health insurance who did not have it 10 years ago and personal bankruptcies have been cut in half.
To include a provision for pre-existing conditions without a personal mandate is not workable, he said. While the cost of premiums have increased 43% from 2008 to 2016, they went up by 97% from 2000 to 2008, before the ACA was enacted. Rising premiums need to be dealt with, but what also needs to change, he said, is improving the efficiency of the American healthcare system.
He added, “if you want a market in health care, think about what that means. Some people drive a Rolls Royce and some can’t afford a car.”
Regarding immigration, both support border security but Himes believes a wall “is a stupid idea” because half the people who enter the country illegally do so by overstaying a visa. He said he wanted to vote for a 2013 bill that passed with 68 votes in the Senate. It included money for border security and a system that would electronically verify a person’s ability to legally work here. The bill also had a “very rigorous earned path to citizenship” for those who are undocumented and may have spouses or children who are citizens. Himes said he did not get to vote for the bill because House Speaker John Boehner never brought it to the House floor.
Arora asked why Himes did not vote on a House bill that would have included more money for technology, border patrols, and fencing, which he also said provided a path for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) residents, known as dreamers.
Himes took umbrage, saying the bill in question failed to get 112 Republican votes because it was a “brutal bill” that gave dreamers only temporary status as long as a border wall continued to be built.
Arora said it didn’t matter who else voted for it. “That’s what the challenge is.”
Arora said more people “walk through the southwest border” than overstay a visa. A process is needed to handle them expeditiously when they show up. “We have to be compassionate but we have to be firm,” Arora said. Many are coming for economic reasons, he said, “but we have our problems, too. We have a very large number of people in our country who are economically disadvantaged and who we do need to help.” He said schools are being “overloaded with the folks who are undocumented.”
On climate change, both agreed it is a very important issue and Himes said the only way to convince other countries to be responsible is by leading them. More concrete solutions could include increasing mileage requirements on automobiles, a move by former President Obama the Trump administration is trying to reverse. Some municipalities are enforcing energy-efficient building codes. He also pointed to a fully refundable carbon tax that, he said, puts a small tax on the use of carbon fuels and then gives it back to Americans, not the government.
Arora said that while the U.S. needs to do more, “we have to compel” other countries that pollute at a greater rate to reduce their emissions. “Leadership is making them see and compelling them to step up. It’s one planet, it’s one mankind. We have to do it together.” He did not say how they could be compelled.
Arora said instead of a refundable carbon tax what would work is a carbon tax with a cap and trade aspect, but he acknowledged it would raise the price of electricity 50% to 100%. “We have to figure out how to implement it correctly,” he said.
On the issue of partisan politics, Arora said the simplest answer is to focus on facts and problem-solving. Himes said the best individual members of Congress can do is model good behavior. “Compromise is the way we get things done,” he said.
In his closing comments, Arora said he stands to “solve problems for all of us. I am strongly committed to a strong economy. … When it comes to civil rights, minority rights, I am going to out there fighting like there is no tomorrow.” He received hearty applause.
Himes said he would make three pledges: to continue to fight “like a wolverine” for what the district needs, such as transportation infrastructure, vote independently, and speak out “when the president goes on [TV] and says the justice department is compromised, our elections are rigged, women are dogs, women are horse faces.”
Going over his allotted time he continued, “When the president says there are two sides to every story when Nazis are marching in Charlottesville, I am going to go on TV and say that is not what we want.”
That drew loud applause and a standing ovation from his supporters in the audience.
The debate was sponsored by the Connecticut League of Women Voters, and co-sponsored by the local leagues of Bridgeport, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Stamford, Weston, and Westport.
The two candidates will meet again for a debate on foreign policy issues on Monday, Oct. 29, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., in the GenRe Auditorium of UConn’s Stamford campus on Washington Blvd. This event is hosted by the World Affairs Forum.