Watch a replay of the Oct. 1, 2020, debate above.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District’s seat truly up for grabs for the first time in years, the race is one of the most closely watched in the country.
In a debate at WOOD TV8’s studio Thursday, candidates Peter Meijer, a Republican, and Hillary Scholten, a Democrat, tried to prove they are the best person to fill that seat and represent West Michigan in Congress.
While the candidates threw a few barbs at one another (it would have been surprising if they hadn’t), their debate was civil and allowed each to explain to voters where they stand on important issues — notably health care, racial equity and how the federal government should respond to the coronavirus pandemic. They also pointed out where their points of view coincided.
RACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
This year, protests have been held around the country, including in Grand Rapids, calling for racial equity, particularly in regards to policing. Both candidates recognized the need for all sorts of programs to help people of color.
Meijer said he wanted to fight mass incarceration to break cycles of poverty and improve educational opportunities. He also promoted the Trump administration’s Opportunity Zone program, which is meant to encourage investment in underserved areas. Critically, he said, law enfocement agencies must build trust with the communities they serve.
Scholten cited her career as a social worker in explaining her understanding of the issue. She said helping the homeless showed her the hold generational poverty can have on people. She said health care is key in combating inequities, as is having a livable minimum wage. She also said that “the message from the top matters,” saying leaders must not seed division.
Moving on to how many issues, from coronavirus to pollution, often disproportionately affect people of color, Meijer said he believed in a stewardship point of view in terms of our environment and taking care of the most vulnerable in our communities. He also noted that the increased reliance on virtual learning is demonstrating the educational disparities, saying Black and Hispanic students who already struggle are falling behind.
Scholten said she has been endorsed by two conservation organizations. She also said Meijer owns stock in a coal mining corporation and has put profits before people, kicking off a rebuttal from Meijer saying she was being unnecessarily partisan.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone’s life in a number of ways, but while Congress was able to move two relief packages fairly quickly in the spring, talks on a third have repeatedly broken down and another stimulus has not been passed even though lawmakers on both side of the aisle agree there should be another round of direct payments.
Scholten said she thought the Paycheck Protection Program was a bright spot in the federal response, but she was disappointed by the partisan gridlock and called for another stimulus for families. Meijer said the government has demonstrated a lack of clear and responsive government, but he said he was encouraged by Operation Warp Speed to encourage a vaccine.
Asked about masks, Meijer said he supported wearing them. He said he wears one and they’re a reasonable precaution top prevent spreading the virus. However, as a federalist, he argued mandates to wear them should be issued on a state-by-state basis rather than nationwide so each state can be responsive to its citizens’ needs.
Scholten agreed wearing masks is clearly the right move, but she said the virus doesn’t know regional boundaries. She said stopping the virus will allow the economy to recover.
Scholten said a direct payment stimulus must be an immediate priority and that the federal government should extend expanded unemployment benefits. While health care wouldn’t be included in the stimulus bill, she said it had to be part of the conversation to get the virus under control.
Meijer also backed another direct payment. He blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for holding up negotiations on the next relief package, saying the Democrats’ bill contains too many dollars for special interests.
THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Republicans are rushing to confirm her replacement. President Donald Trump has nominated conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Though members of the House of Representatives won’t vote on confirmation, Meijer said he would support Barrett’s. Scholten said the issue has raised concerns about the Affordable Care Act, a portion of which will go before the high court right after the election. She said people should have a say in the next justice because of that issue.
This shifted the discussion to health care. Scholten said Meijer said he would repeal the ACA, but Meijer said he would never do that without a workable plan to protect preexisting conditions. He said he wanted to see market-based solutions. Scholten said she did, too, but that the ACA was clearly key in helping a huge number of Americans get coverage.
With many disappointed by the partisan gridlock that often plagues Congress — including in the effort to pass another coronavirus relief package — both candidates promised they would work across the aisle and said they have already done so.
Meijer also said he would join the Problem Solvers Caucus, which focuses on bipartisan solutions. U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden Township. and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, are all members of that caucus.
Asked specifically if they would be willing to vote against their party, Meijer said he would be aggressive in environmental work including fighting PFAS contamination. Scholten said she believes her fellow Democrats can be too liberal in their spending and said she would push back on programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal because of their cost.
In a question submitted by a West Michigan resident, the candidates were asked how they would get things done amid the bureaucracy of Congress. Meijer said that frustrated him, too. He said he wanted to see modernize Congress to fix that. He said his time in the military had taught him how to navigate bureaucracy and cut through red tape. Scholten said she knew trust was key and said bipartisanship was key. She said she learned how to do that while she was an attorney for the Department of Justice.
Both candidates expressed skepticism of term limits, saying they can negatively impact representatives’ institutional knowledge and prevent them from getting things done.
Asked for a brief response on what he would do to protect the environment, Meijer said he supported the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, passing the PFAS Cleanup Act, the Watershed Health and Wellness Act, devoting federal funds to the environmental rehabilitation and shifting to renewable energy to limit greenhouse gases and combat climate change.
Scholten said she supported the GLRI and the PFAS Action Plan. She added big businesses must be held accountable for their affect on the environment and pay for cleanup.
Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District includes the counties of Kent, Ionia, Barry and Calhoun, as well as a portion of Montcalm County. Rep. Justin Amash, an independent who has held the seat for a decade, is not seeking re-election this time around.
The general election is Nov. 3, but absentee ballots are already being submitted.
Hillary Scholten’s campaign website: hillaryscholten.com
Peter Meijer’s campaign website: votemeijer.com