The three Democratic Senate candidates vying for their party’s nomination squared off in a televised debate on Thursday in one of the nation’s most watched congressional races.
Senate Democratic hopefuls Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Representative Conor Lamb and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta answered a range of questions and took turns discussing each other’s agenda during a hour-long debate that took place at the studio of WHTM-TV. in Harrisburg.
With just three weeks until the May 17 primary, it was the first time the three candidates had come together for a televised debate.
Answering a series of questions touching on energy, the war in Ukraine, immigration, fracking and gun violence, among other things, the Democratic hopefuls offered a glimpse of the differences between them – some subtle ones. , others less so.
In between answering questions from Dennis Owens and WPXI anchor Lisa Sylvester about tax hikes and fracking, Fetterman came under fire on a topic he tried to get past: the 2013 incident. during which the former mayor of Braddock pointed a shotgun at a black jogger believing he was a fugitive criminal.
“It’s important to recognize the harm caused by over-policing and racial profiling in the black community,” Fetterman prefaced when answering the question, elaborating on his record as mayor in reducing gun violence.
Fetterman explained that on that cold January night, he responded to a flurry of gunfire and made a split-second decision to call 911 and intercept the lone individual running in the direction of the fire.
Asked by Owens if he would do anything different today, Fetterman said, “It’s definitely not a situation where anyone would want to be involved in gun violence.”
Lamb accused Fetterman of lying, explaining that as a prosecutor he had read the police report in which the former mayor admitted to pointing the gun at the man in order to arrest him.
“Today John not only won’t admit it, he won’t answer if he did something wrong,” Lamb said.
Kenyatta, a North Philadelphia native, faulted Fetterman for refusing to apologize for the incident.
“For someone who cuts the image of a badass, he’s so scared of two little words, I’m sorry,” the state representative said. “The problem with John is that he always refuses to do one of the most important things and that is to think.”
Fetterman pointed out that the people of Braddock re-elected him for two more terms. “The important thing is that the people of Braddock know me and know my heart,” he said.
The candidates were guided away from this incident towards more pressing campaign issues, including the war in Ukraine.
Kenyatta insisted that he would not support sending US troops to Ukraine; he said the United States and its allies must continue to pressure Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and hold him accountable.
Lamb said he supports the Biden administration’s latest weapons assistance to Ukraine. He said the United States must help Ukraine “no matter how long or what it takes.”
Fetterman said he applauded Biden’s latest aid to Ukraine, but stressed that no US troops should be deployed to the beleaguered country.
“We can’t risk this escalating into a hot war with Russia,” Fetterman said. “That for me is the overriding concern here.”
Who is most eligible?
A key question asked of the candidates concerned their eligibility, especially since none of the three candidates had a clear, or at least overt, endorsement from the party.
Lamb, a moderate centrist who is widely considered the Democratic Party’s unofficial preferred candidate, pointed to his track record of victories in western Pennsylvania districts that are historically Republican strongholds and those Trump won solidly in 2016. .
Lamb said he had “what it takes to stand up” and win against the Republicans. “I’m the only candidate who beat the Republicans head to head,” said the former Marine and prosecutor.
Beyond his towering 6-foot-9 stage presence, Fetterman currently commands in the polls and fundraising.
The former mayor of Braddock, who lost an insurgent primary campaign for that seat six years ago, maintains a comfortable lead in the polls and has more than three times as much money as Lamb going into the final stretch of the primary , despite a Super PAC endorsement and cash injection recently given to the Pittsburgh-area congressman.
As of March 31, Fetterman had $4.2 million in the bank, according to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer analysis of campaign disclosures. Lamb had $2.2 million, but a significant portion of that money is earmarked exclusively for the November general election.
Fetterman pointed out that he had already won a competitive Democratic primary, knocking out a sitting lieutenant governor; adding 1 million more votes to Governor Tom Wolf’s bottom line in 2018 than the previous ticket.
“We’re able to bring out the margins that we’re going to need,” said Fetterman, who found himself in traditionally Republican rural districts. “I’m the only candidate to have embraced this idea for every county, every vote.”
Kenyatta, though lagging in polls and fundraising against his two rivals, has more recently enjoyed measured flurries of voters and financial support. He chastised the pundit that the Commonwealth is not ready for its first black and openly gay senator.
Kenyatta pointed out that he hails from southeastern Pennsylvania, which has more voters than any other region in the Commonwealth. He said the race is not about polls or money, but about setting out a vision for a bigger and bolder Democratic majority.
“Pennsylvania is more ready for a new day, a new vision and a new leadership” than experts would have voters believe, said Kenyatta, who has built a diverse coalition of backers.
The open seat race is widely seen as the Democratic Party’s best chance of securing a Senate seat in the fall.
The seat is vacated by Sen. Pat Toomey, one of seven Republicans who voted last year to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The Cannabis Debate
Fetterman, a strong supporter of legalizing recreational marijuana use, reiterated that legalization would generate billions of dollars in federal revenue, create jobs, provide a cash crop for farmers and be a therapeutic tool for veterans. combatants with PTSD.
“There’s really no reason to oppose the legalization of marijuana,” Fetterman said. “The only reason is reefer madness.”
Lamb, a prosecutor, voted earlier this month in favor of a bill that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and allow certain marijuana-related convictions to be overturned. In 2020, Lamb was one of only four House Democrats to vote against a similar measure.
He said the decriminalization process must be stopped “slowly and carefully” to address issues such as workplace safety for people who use marijuana.
Kenyatta said the problem goes beyond economics and medicine, noting the disproportionate rates of African Americans being arrested and convicted for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
“I understand this is a civil rights issue, it’s a matter for the future of our economy and a matter for farmers who would be happy to farm to produce,” he said. .
How to slow down gun violence
Candidates were asked to address the continuing wave of gun violence in the Commonwealth and outline their proposals for tackling gun violence at the federal level.
Fetterman said he would vote to end the Senate filibuster, which he said would be the only way to pass comprehensive, common-sense legislation, including a ban on assault weapons.
Lamb said he would focus on prevention and support shifting law enforcement funds from non-violent drug crimes to more aggressive gun crimes. He said the United States was too weak to prosecute the gun trade.
Kenyatta said he would focus on building communities with good jobs and healthcare for all to ensure safety.
All three gave President Biden high marks in his first year in office, with Kenyatta giving him an A- to B+ grade from his two challengers for president.
The candidates answered a question about immigration, specifically a federal provision that allows the government to prevent migrants from entering the country during a health emergency like the pandemic. Title 42 is due to expire on May 23. They were asked if they would vote to extend it.
Fetterman cautioned against too reckless or too quick a dismissal, calling for a deeper level of planning by the government. He said he would support comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform.
Lamb said the measure, designed to control variants of the pandemic, should remain enforced and in place for up to 60 days after the CDC declares the pandemic over.
Kenyatta called for a plan to ensure asylum seekers are treated with humanity and dignity.
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