MJ Hegar on COVID relief, expanding Supreme Court, and building the Ike Dike

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On Tuesday, the Signal interviewed Democrat U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar. Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, is running against three-term incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

If elected, Hegar would be the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Texas in more than two decades. It would also bring Democrats closer to narrowing the four-seat gap in the Senate.

Hegar said healthcare should be the top priority for Democrats if they win control of the upper chamber. 

“The broken healthcare system is what’s hurting Texans the most,” Hegar said, adding that the Affordable Care Act successfully expanded coverage for many Texans but the pandemic has left one out of three working-age Texans without health insurance. 

On the campaign trail, Hegar has voiced support for adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act in order to increase Medicare availability. 

Hegar said Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and the looming 6-3 conservative court majority threaten to tear apart the healthcare law altogether.

With no tools left for Democrats to block the nomination, and Republicans intent on moving ahead with the nomination during a presidential election year (something Republicans, including Cornyn, previously opposed) Barrett’s nomination to create the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1950s appears inevitable. Some Democrats, like Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler of New York, have called on fellow Democrats to expand the number of justices on the court to undo the Republican imbalance. 

Taking a position similar to Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hegar said she was opposed to the idea.

“I am an outside-of-the-box kind of person,” Hegar said. “I’m willing to listen to ideas that would shake things up — if I hear arguments about why it would be best for our democracy and our constitution and our country.”

“Right now the arguing is about what’s going to benefit one party over the other and I’m super cautious about making structural changes to benefit a party because, among other things I don’t think it’s right, but the pendulum always swings back to the other party’s control, and we want to be careful what kind of precedent we set,” Hegar said, proposing term limits for justices instead.

Hegar said she wished Republicans had the same appetite for rushing a Supreme Court nomination as they did for passing a second coronavirus relief package. 

The first COVID-19 relief package successfully passed in March, but weekly federal unemployment benefits ended more than two months ago in July. With the White House and Senate Republicans at odds about the size of the stimulus package, and a $2.2 trillion House bill being pushed by Democrats expected to be rejected in the Senate, it appears increasingly unlikely that a second relief package will come to pass before Election Day. 

“Our government is so dysfunctional right now,” Hegar said. “There’s so much hyperpartisanship and bickering, finger-pointing, and posturing for the election. I think [Congress] should be focusing on regular everyday people, and if we need to do that in a piecemeal approach, then so be it.” 

Hegar said the best thing Congress can do for the economy right now is to get the outbreak under control and improve the U.S. healthcare model to allow for better-funded hospitals and free COVID-19 testing. 

“People can’t go afford to get a COVID test if they are experiencing symptoms, and that’s a big part of why we can’t get this pandemic under control in Texas,” Hegar said.

Unemployment in the Lone Star State remains nearly double its pre-pandemic levels, according to the Texas Tribune. The virus and its economic consequences have impacted low-income Texans and small businesses the most — and proven to be a boon for many of the state’s wealthiest. At the start of the pandemic, Federal Reserve data released last week showed that the top 1 percent of income earners in America owned 16 times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent. That gap is expected to grow even wider during the pandemic. In Texas alone, evictions are still ongoing despite a federal moratorium, half a million households are at risk of losing power as they struggle to pay utilities, and the outbreak has erased two decades of food security gains and doubled hunger in the state.

Hegar said the growing gap between the rich and poor threatens the American dream and is morally, ethically, and economically speaking, strategically wrong. 

“The backbone of our economy is the middle class,” Hegar said. “We are damaging our economy by not giving them spending power to keep food on the table and keep a roof over their kid’s head and also spend in the consumer economy.”

On climate change, Hegar said the issue was the greatest threat to her kids and the nation. 

“If we want to maintain our status as leaders of the free world, we’ve got to lead in this area and we’re not,” Hegar said. “China right now is leading in renewable energy, and as a Texan that just pisses me off.” 

“When John Cornyn says he wants to project jobs, he’s really talking about protecting CEOs,” Hegar said. “We have been losing energy sector jobs since 2014 steadily. We have lost half the jobs we had in 2014, so this is not about losing jobs if we transition to renewable energy — we’re going to keep losing jobs if we don’t transition to renewable energy.” 

Hegar said fighting the effects of climate change is important too, including improving how quickly relief and aid get to disaster-stricken communities, especially communities of color that are disproportionately disenfranchised from that relief.  

Hegar said she was supportive of a plan to build the Ike Dike, a Galveston-Houston coastal barrier to protect from climate change-powered hurricanes and their storm surge which threaten to destroy unprotected petro-chemical facilities, potentially unleashing an estimated 90 million gallons of oil and hazardous substances into the Houston area. 

“I was flying hurricane recovery during Hurricane Ike in Texas,” Hegar said. “I was flying around looking for people sitting on top of their houses, and I got to see the damage first hand and it was absolutely painful.” 

Photo:MJ for Texas

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