By JACOB BLAIR
An estimated 650 people came to the EKU Center for the Arts just eight days before Election Day to hear incumbent Andy Barr and challenger Elisabeth Jensen address concerns about Congress and lay out their plans if elected by voters.
Bill Bryant from WKYT in Lexington was the moderator and a panel was made up of Sam Youngman, a Lexington Herald-Leader political reporter; Jonese Franklin, WEKU news director; and Student Body President Kyle Nicholas.
Barr opened Monday night’s debate by thanking the university and those involved in setting up the debate.
“We want to thank EKU for having this important discussion about the future of our country,” Barr said.
Jensen used her opening statement to lay out her platform for getting elected to Congress, one that features more, better paying Kentucky jobs, she said.
“I’m running for Congress because I believe we need something different in Congress,” Jensen said.
When it comes to minimum wage, each candidate had differing ideas for stimulating the economy. Jensen said the best idea was to increase the minimum wage to get more money in the hands of Americans. Barr disagreed.
“The solution is robust economic growth,” Barr said.
When it came to keeping money in federal Pell Grants for students, Jensen said the total amount of dollars set aside for Pell Grants needs to be protected, citing that the cost of college tuition has increased tenfold compared to the most recent increases in minimum wage. Barr said the best way to protect funding for Pell Grants was to keep mandatory spending in check.
Jensen answered a question about infrastructure and said more than 3,000 bridges in the state are structurally deficient and her opponent wouldn’t help fix the problem.
“[The] opponent’s plan is a reverse Dutch auction that nobody understands,” Jensen said.
Barr mentioned how bills he supported were getting stuck at the desk of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and to pass bills to fix problems such as infrastructure, his solution is to change the Senate. Jensen then offered a rebuttal to Barr.
“I agree. Let’s get rid of McConnell and send Alison,” Jensen said.
Youngman chimed in about the Senate race after the discussion came up during the debate.
“I’m so glad you all mentioned the Senate race. I was wondering if you knew there was one of those going on,” Youngman said jokingly.
Jensen said she was focused on things that would help people in the district. Barr used the opportunity to talk about term limits and said the point of representatives and senators was to go and represent the people and after a certain amount of time, come home to their constituents. Jensen challenged his logic.
“His bill has 0 percent of ever being enacted,” Jensen said.
Jensen said a solution to rising consumer interest rates was to set limits on interest rates to protect consumers. Barr disagreed and said the best consumer protection is choices and that government getting involved in lending is how the last financial crisis happened.
Jensen suggested that having the best potential for local industries to succeed required investing in infrastructure such as data and Internet. Barr disagreed and said the first thing when it comes to industry is for government to “get out of the way.” He then discussed qualifications local companies are looking for.
“They need qualified, skilled labor and they’re not getting it from the government,” Barr said.
Bryant asked the candidates about having a National Weather Service office in Lexington. Barr noted three deaths in Menifee County when a tornado hit and pondered the answer.
“I’d be interested to know if that would increase timely information,” Barr said.
Jensen used the opportunity to change the discussion point to Hurricane Sandy relief, saying that Barr voted against funding recovery efforts. Barr rebutted her point.
“I voted for relief,” Barr said. “But not things that didn’t contribute to humanitarian aid.”
The discussion then switched to a hot button topic across the nation: what should the U.S. do about ISIL? Jensen suggested that the nation form a coalition with other allies in the region and that they should be the first to put boots on the ground.
“If we truly want to be a world leader, we need to understand the culture of Islam,” Jensen said.
Barr responded that job creation is his first priority if voters elect him. He said there are bills such as the Coal Jobs Protection Act, but they are all sitting on Reid’s desk. Jensen said those bills were tax break acts.
Barr responded that small businesses were complaining about too much oversight by the government.
“If you talk to small businesses in the district, they are getting harassed by the Consumer Protection Bureau,” Barr said.
Jensen said that she would always be on the side of the consumer, as a rebuttal to Barr’s comment.
Jensen addressed a question about whether or not to attend a 4-year college.
“We need to make sure there are opportunities for people not on that [college] path,” Jensen said. “It’s not one size fits all.”
A discussion then came up about the Blue Grass Army Depot. Barr mentioned how he fought for furlough to keep the fire department there open as a public safety concern. He also said the depot has completed phase one of the munitions destruction process and is working on phase two. He said he wants the skills the workers learn currently to be transferrable to other industries and promote other industries to relocate here because of the available workforce in the early 2020s.
“We don’t want to lose those skills, those jobs we have here,” Barr said.
Jensen mentioned keeping jobs at the Bluegrass Army Depot in the region after the project is complete was one thing on which she and Barr agreed.
The candidates were then asked to give a letter grade to President Obama. Jensen said she would give the president a B-. She said there was some policies she agreed with but still a lot she didn’t. Barr said he would give the president a failing grade, even though he wants the president to succeed and mentioned some bills such as the Veterans Affairs Reform Act and the Farm Bill he voted in favor of and that the president signed into law.
“I’ve worked in a bipartisan way to get things done,” Barr said.
As part of her closing statement, Jensen said she wouldn’t be spending tax dollars on herself and challenged Barr’s voting record.
“My opponent voted for the shutdown, and he voted against reopening the government,” Jensen said.
Barr closed with a plea to the 6th district voters.
“I am doing this for a cause, not a career,” he said.