Questions over police reform, COVID-19 dominate Texas U.S. Senate debate

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Texas’ two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates faced off Saturday evening, discussing hot-button issues like police reform and the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

State Sen. Royce West and Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar, the two runoff candidates vying to unseat Sen. John Cornyn in November, participated in the debate, the final event of this year’s Texas Democratic Convention.

When asked about police and criminal justice reform — issues that have skyrocketed to the forefront of American politics following the killing of George Floyd in police custody — both candidates agreed that more police transparency and accountability were needed.

“We don’t have a few poisoned apples, we have a plague of locusts that have come through the orchid,” Hegar said promoting the policy solutions of Campaign Zero, a reform campaign that pushes for more community oversight, ending for-profit policing, and ending “Broken Windows” policing, the practice of over-policing minor crimes like marijuana possession and loitering. 

West, touting his lead on the successful passage of body camera legislation in the Texas Legislature in 2015, said he also supported the reforms proposed by Campaign Zero as well as the recommendations of an Obama-era task force that advised more oversight of police and the changing of police culture. 

“I think that we need to have a uniform definition of the use of deadly force across this country,” West added. “We use the purse strings of the federal government to make certain that states adopt what that definition is across the country.”

“When I see the militarization of our police force, both with tactics and equipment, when you militarize the police force you’re not doing them any favors because the civilian population will respond in a way that they are at war,” Hegar said.

On responding to COVID-19, both U.S. Senate candidates agreed that the federal government should continue aiding Americans in the pandemic. To pay for more stimulus packages or relief legislation, Hegar said corporations like Amazon would need to pay their fair share and promised middle-class Americans would not see a tax increase. West said funding should go to local governments to help support essential workers and first responders. He said he supported taxing Americans with an income of more than $1 million a year to pay for such legislation.

When the conversation shifted to healthcare, West and Hegar said it was important to expand Medicaid in Texas using federal dollars provided by the Affordable Care Act and to improve the sweeping Obama-era health policy with a public option. 

Throughout the one-hour debate, West and Hegar found themselves agreeing on a majority of issues, with most differences arising in rhetoric. Both agreed to support expunging marijuana records and releasing Texans from prison who were jailed on those charges (as long as their records were non-violent). Both favored universal background checks for firearm purchases, although Hegar did not commit to supporting a ban on assault-style weapons. Both favored limiting service in the U.S. Senate to two terms.

With only 30 seconds or one minute to respond to questions, it was clear both candidates struggled to answer complicated questions with so little time, a problem that had to do more with the format than the candidates themselves.

A light-hearted moment in the debate occurred when panelists asked the candidates if they had ever smoked marijuana. 

“It was a youthful indiscretion,” West said jokingly. 

“Plenty of states have legalized it,” Hegar said.

Perhaps the biggest disagreement of the evening came when the candidates were asked if they supported a ban of fracking, or the use of high-pressure chemical liquids to extract oil from the ground.

West said he supports a federal moratorium on fracking until policymakers better understood what chemicals were going into the ground and how they affected water supply. Hegar skirted around the question but said climate change was the country’s “greatest national security threat.”

As the debate concluded, both candidates took shots at the incumbent senator.

“John Cornyn, I know that you’re watching. This relationship is not working out, honey. We’re just not that into you,” Hegar said citing a recent poll showing Cornyn’s 37 percent approval rating. 

“John Cornyn I’m coming for you,” West said. “The fact of the matter is you’ve got to make certain you elect a person who has a record of bringing people together.”

The runoff election between West and Hegar will take place on July 14. 

Photos: Royce West for U.S. Senate / MJ for Texas

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