Second District Democrats Gwen Combs, Jonathan Dunkley, Paul Spencer and Clarke Tucker squared off Wednesday night (April 4) in their first formal debate, vying for the nomination to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill this November.
In a debate organized by Talk Business & Politics and KATV at the station’s Little Rock studio, the four Democratic candidates answered questions for an hour on healthcare, veterans, gun control, Russia, DACA and tariffs.
Combs, a veteran and public school teacher, emphasized that she was the only woman running for the seat and she added that Congress needed more diversity in its composition.
“I’m a fighter,” Combs said. “I believe we need people in Washington who have their priorities straight. My priorities put Arkansans first and they include affordable, accessible healthcare, public education that is first-class from pre-K all the way through employability, and financial security for singles, families and seniors.”
Tucker, an attorney and two-term state representative, touted his experience and success in the Arkansas Legislature despite being a member of the minority party. He also shared his personal story of overcoming cancer last year and how the need for quality healthcare motivated him to run for Congress.
“My diagnosis took place just a few months after our Congressman, French Hill, went to Washington and helped pass the American Health Care Act. This piece of legislation virtually stripped away access to healthcare for millions of Americans and Arkansans, especially people who are poor, who don’t know how to work the system, or who have a pre-existing condition like myself,” Tucker said.
Dunkley, an operations director at the Clinton School of Public Service, said he was the “most progressive” candidate in the race. He was encouraged to seek the seat after a conversation with his 9-year old daughter who challenged him to do more to impact the world and reverse President Trump’s agenda.
“I am a winner, not just a fighter, we win. We get things accomplished on behalf of the people. That’s all I’ve done professionally here in this community. That’s what I’ll do as I go to Washington to continue to represent your interests,” Dunkley said.
Spencer, a Catholic high school teacher and small businessman with a pecan farm, said his previous experience fighting for campaign finance reform helped him draw the conclusion that the district is under-represented. He cited a lot of voter discontent, but wanted that “being angry isn’t enough.”
“I think we need to offer more than just who I am and who I’m going to be,” Spencer said. “We really need to focus on the needs of the people of the Second District. Identity is a good thing, but it can’t trump good, common-sense legislation.”
THE DOMESTIC FRONT
On domestic issues, the four candidates discussed veterans’ access to healthcare and the push by some in Congress and the Trump administration to privatize services. They all were hesitant to privatize the Veterans Administration (VA) and said more needed to be done for veterans and citizens to expand healthcare access and affordability.
Spencer, Dunkley and Combs advocate a single-payer healthcare program, such as “Medicare for all.” Tucker said there should be a basic healthcare plan available to everyone, but there should be a way to expand and personalize additional services to enhance coverage.
On tax cuts and tax increases, Dunkley said he was not supportive of raising taxes except in the area of cannabis, a burgeoning industry that he argued could raise crucial money as it expands state-by-state. Spencer said the tax cut plan approved by Congress late last year was “an abomination.”
Combs said corporate taxes have been lowered too much and advocated for a higher tax rate than the current 21%. Tucker said he supported a fix to correct a tax hit on widows of veterans, and he supported middle-class tax cuts and a more robust earned income tax credit for lower-income citizens. He argued the Trump and GOP-led Congressional tax cut was “not the best way” to balance the federal budget.
The candidates had some of their harshest words for the National Rifle Association (NRA). On the question of gun restrictions, the Democrats said the NRA was too powerful of a lobbying organization on current members of Congress and that common-sense gun control laws were needed.
Spencer said he supported banning assault-style weapons, high capacity magazines, raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, background checks at gun shows, and banning those with domestic abuse convictions from purchasing weapons.
Touting her military background, Combs said she looked at gun safety as a top priority. She said she supported a ban on assault weapons such as the one touted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who has pushed to renew a 1990’s law that led to a drop in gun violence. Combs noted that when she was serving her country, they didn’t refer to her AR-15 as a “firearm.” “We called them ‘weapons’ for a reason. They kill people.”
Tucker said that preserving hunters’ and responsible gun owners’ rights were crucial, but actions such as closing the gun show loophole should be taken. He also said he supported expanded research by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study gun violence and ways to further prevent deaths and injuries.
Dunkley called for more research-based and evidence-based solutions to gun control. He said the issue had become so big and “emotionally charged” that it was leading to an irrational debate about common-sense reforms and responsible action to curb gun violence.
When asked about Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of President Trump and Russian influence, the candidates said that more evidence was needed before drawing conclusions that might lead to impeachment. Although not hesitant to impeach if the facts warrant, the Democrats used the question to discuss the lack of checks and balances on the current administration by the GOP Congress.
On the issue of a solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) generation, Spencer warned that there should not be a negotiation between human beings and public policy. He opposed the notion that Congress should trade a DACA deal for border wall security.
Dunkley revealed that his father, a Jamaican immigrant, came to the U.S. with very little money, but like other immigrants became a huge contributor to society. More should be done to embrace immigrants through a sensible policy of open borders.
Tucker said he felt there was bipartisan support for a deal to find a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. He opposed spending billions of dollars on a structural border wall, claiming it was the wrong use of taxpayer money and could be spent more strategically to curb illegal immigration.
Combs said she supports a clean DREAM Act that offers a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. She noted that immigrants contribute to society in a major way and help keep communities safer and stronger. She opposes building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Finally, all four Democratic candidates said the escalating tariff and trade wars were bad for American business. Dunkley said the U.S. has to get away from the idea that America is the “only country producing things.” He said there are ramifications for Trump’s blustery trade talk that will damage American interests in the long-run. Combs said the trade disadvantages that Trump frequently complains about are not nearly as pronounced as he suggests.
Spencer, who grew up around the steel mills near Pittsburgh, said the administration’s actions have predictably pushed retaliatory responses from countries like China. He said tariffs, such as the ones leveled on soybeans by China, were intentionally targeted to agricultural states like Arkansas where Trump performed well in 2016. Tucker said he supports free and fair trade. He called the Trump administration’s current approach “misguided.”
The Democratic primary is Tuesday, May 22nd and the general election, which will include Rep. Hill and Libertarian Joe Swafford, is Tuesday, November 6th. You can watch a replay of the full Democratic debate in the video below.
Editor’s note: Jeff LeMaster contributed to this article.