Delaware U.S. Senate debate pits experience vs. shaking up Congress

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (right) and challenger for the Democratic nomination, Kerri Evelyn Harris, debate at the Cab Calloway School for the Arts in Wilmington.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (right) and challenger for the Democratic nomination, Kerri Evelyn Harris, debate at the Cab Calloway School for the Arts in Wilmington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

An unusual event took place in Delaware Monday. Two Democratic candidates in Delaware’s U.S. Senate primary debated in front of a packed crowd in Wilmington Monday night.

The race pits Kerri Evelyn Harris, a veteran and community advocate with no political experience against incumbent U.S. Senator Tom Carper, who has held his seat for about 18 years, and has held political office for decades.

Much of the night focused on Carper’s track record and Harris’ platform to make Congress more progressive. The debate became heated when asked if Delawareans should vote for experience or fresh ideas.

“I get up when most people are still sound asleep, I go to the Y and work out, I catch a 7:50 train, I go to Washington, I work 14-hour days. I have a 99 percent voting rate,”  Carper said.

“I want to make sure we don’t leave this world on fire because of climate change, trying to make sure there’s a free and fair way for people that need to come to this country for refuge have a way to get here legally, trying to make sure the air we breathe is fresh and clean and the water is safe to drink as well. I want to make sure the issues the people of this state care about are pursued. I actually have fixed things. There’s one thing to know what’s the right thing to do, it’s another thing to actually do it,” he added.

Harris, who is African-American and openly gay, stressed the importance of diversifying Congress in multiple ways.

“We need diversity in experience. It’s not good enough to have a Congress filled with career politicians who can only see world through one lens, because that’s the lens they all share,” she said.

“There is room in the halls of Congress for a teacher, a retail worker, an autobody mechanic. If everybody’s viewing the world through the same lens you get things happening like [Supreme Court nominee Brett] Kavanaugh, because you spoke to other people in your network and they said, ‘He’s a good guy.’ You get people like Alex Azar who was a drug company CEO who made it so prescriptions were so high we couldn’t afford it and then you make comments like, ‘Well another senator said he was a good guy at Yale.’”

Harris used women’s reproductive rights as another example to promote the importance of diversifying Washington D.C.

While Carper supports abortion rights and believes Roe v. Wade is settled precedent, Harris argued women rightfully fear the Supreme Court will overturn that decision.

“As women we understand there aren’t enough women there fighting for us,” she said.

“We need to overturn the Hyde Act. People are dying. There are people who can’t afford an abortion and because there are no ways to get them because public funding is not allowed they take matters into their own hands,” she said.

Carper and Harris agreed on several topics. They both support a $15 federal minimum wage, an athlete’s rights to protest at NFL games, an Equal Rights Amendment and overturning the landmark Supreme Court decision “Citizens United.” They both also disagree with most Trump administration policies, and both oppose the president’s Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh.

However, a passionate debate ensued over several key issues, including how to best handle student loan debt.

“College debt is a burden, not just for students, it’s a burden for their parents, their extended family. It’s one of the reasons working class families are struggling,” Harris said.

“If we eliminate and bail out the debt of our college students it will spur out our economy, because those students when they graduate will put back into economy. They won’t buy out stocks and shares to increase their bottom lines, they’re going to buy houses and cars and products we need to move ourselves forward. If you want to increase not just the future of our students but grow our economy I say eliminate all student debt and start fresh,” she added.

Carper argued debt cancellation would be a financial burden.

“I don’t have a magic wand that would enable us to do that. To do that it would cost a pretty penny,” he said. “I voted repeatedly to increase Pell Grants for low-income students. We have a federal loan program, and for those who take advantage of that the interest rates are low and when they graduate if they go into public service the debt is paid off after 10 years,” he said.

With that, Harris quipped; “I appreciate all you have done, but when we talk about not having a magic wand — we found a way to bail out the banks that were too big to fail, but nothing’s bigger to fail than our students, than our future.”

The pair also disagreed over access to healthcare. While Carper wants to improve the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, Harris said it’s not enough. She supports free universal access to Medicare.

“The majority of people in Delaware already has insurance. The problem is we can’t afford to use it — our premiums are too high, our deductibles are too high, our co-payments are too high. The cost of medication makes us decide whether to pay for food, pay for utilities or pay for prescriptions. People are dying because they only have access,” Harris said.

“Healthcare is human right and we need to make sure everybody has it. We need elected officials who will roll up their sleeves and figure out how to pay for it just like they figured out how to pay for us to go to Iraq, just like they figured out how to pay for everything else,” she said.

Prior to the Democratic debate, Republican candidate Gene Truono, a former chief compliance officer for PayPal, discussed his platform on the right to bear arms, addressing the opioid epidemic and his support of Trump administration tax overhaul. He also attacked his opponent, Republican Rob Arlett, a Sussex county councilman, for not participating in Monday night’s debate or one last week.

The News Journal of Wilmington organized the event.  The Delaware primary is Thursday September 6th. Only voters who are registered to a party are able to vote that day.

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