TOPEKA — Kansas congressional candidates Jake LaTurner and Michelle De La Isla denounced Wednesday street violence inspired by racism and opposed calls to defund law enforcement agencies, while diverging on expansion of Medicaid to lower-income Kansans and creating a path to citizenship for children brought illegally to the United States.
The debate between the 2nd District candidates on KSNT-TV in Topeka offered LaTurner, the Republican nominee, an opportunity to continue a campaign to define De La Isla as a “radical” allied with Democrats such as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.
“These folks couldn’t find Kansas on a map,” said LaTurner, who is the Kansas state treasurer. “But they definitely want to have another liberal vote come from Kansas.”
De La Isla, the Democratic nominee and mayor of Topeka, said she intentionally avoided attacking LaTurner’s character during the 30-minute debate. She said voters should understand her life story has been influenced by the harsh realities of homelessness, a bout with cancer and being a single parent without health insurance.
“My only concern right now is you,” she said. “I don’t care about our parties. You can be a Republican, an independent, and I am still going to serve you with dignity and with grit.”
Violence in streets
In response to questions, LaTurner said the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers was a tragedy. He said he would defend a person’s right to peacefully protest, “but what we cannot have is violence in our streets.” The GOP candidate repeated a false claim that De La Isla worked as Topeka mayor to defund the Topeka Police Department.
LaTurner also said he was disturbed De La Isla, as a trustee of Washburn University in Topeka, stood by as statutes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were removed from campus in July. In fact, the family responsible for donating the bronze statutes of the founding fathers requested their return to avoid “embarrassment” and both were relocated without incident.
“Trying to rewrite our history is not going to solve the race problem in this country,” he said.
De La Isla, who was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, said she has not and would not endorse proposals to defund law enforcement agencies. She said the Topeka Police Department’s annual budget had been increased by $5 million since 2017 to more than $40 million.
“I’m a law-loving citizen and even though I support the free speech of citizens of the United States by peacefully protesting, I would never support any rioting or defacing or destruction in our country,” she said. “It’s important that all of us understand that in order for us to get to the point in which we have more just communities, we need to start talking about preventative issues. How do we provide early childhood education? How do we insure that the social determinants of health are being taken care of early on?”
De La Isla said she was an advocate of expanding Medicaid health insurance to an estimated 150,000 lower-income Kansans. She was critical of politicians, including LaTurner and former Gov. Sam Brownback, who worked to block full implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Kansas.
LaTurner, who aligned himself against the ACA while a member of the Kansas Senate, said he was focused on legislation to prevent massive “surprise” medical bills and to protect a popular provision of Obamacare that ended the practice of punishing people for a pre-existing condition.
“There seems to be a lot of talk about pre-existing conditions, but there seems to be no plan,” De La Isla said.
The candidates were asked their view on fate of so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally as children by their parents.
Under the Dream Act proposal in Congress, the federal government would grant temporary conditional residency with the right to work to qualifying immigrants who entered the country as minors. If they met further qualifications, these individuals would be able to attain permanent residency.
LaTurner said he was opposed to a path to citizenship for anyone who came to the United States illegally. He accused De La Isla of proposing that people who violated federal law be moved to the front of the citizenship line, declaring “that’s not right.”
De La Isla said she would decouple debate about the Dreamers from other policy considerations, such as building a border wall, to make certain the nation cared for children who came to the United States at the direction of others. That should include a process to obtain citizenship, she said.
In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, LaTurner said people ought to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on washing hands, social distancing and wearing a mask. He said it was essential the United States develop a vaccine, perhaps by the end of the year. He also said he would be opposed to a national mandate to wear a mask.
“People are going to act in their self interests,” he said. “I start with the idea that people are smart. I don’t think that the federal government needs to come in here and tell everybody what to do.”
De La Isla said the country had to respect the virus’ lethality and respect science of this coronavirus. She said it was difficult for states, counties and cities to maneuver through the pandemic when federal government leaders, a list that included President Donald Trump, sought to diminish the threat of COVID-19. Trump tested positive for the virus, but now claims he has been cured.