In a largely tame conversation that got tense only once, candidates hoping to represent the metro-east in Congress debated the issues Thursday evening in Belleville.
Lindenwood University was the host for the event, the only debate before the Nov. 8 election. It featured incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro; C.J. Baricevic, D-Belleville; and Paula Bradshaw of the Green Party from Carbondale.
Perhaps the biggest issue in southern Illinois — coal — led off the debate, with the candidates describing the role they see coal playing in the region despite federal rules designed to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants.
“Coal is absolutely very relevant in this district,” Baricevic said. “We live in a reality that we are negatively affecting our climate. But the economic tragedy of Southern Illinois is the economy is leaving workers behind.”
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Ignoring current technologies that allow coal to burn more cleanly is a mistake, he said, one that would put thousands of folks out of work when they could have stayed on the job. “We need to make sure we move forward appropriately,” he said.
Bradshaw said the mistake was that candidates have continued debating coal for decades despite common knowledge that burning it is dangerous to the environment.
“We need to switch to solar energy and wind power, which already employs more people than coal in good-paying jobs,” she said. She said her party’s Green New Deal — a massive public works program reminiscent of the Depression-era New Deal — would keep workers across the 12th busy building a green power network.
Bost answered by slamming Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who supports federal rules that cut emissions.
“Only one of us had the head of our party offer to shut down every coal mine that exists,” Bost said. “I’ve worked side-by-side with people in those coal mines. My family were coal miners. I am in for coal and I believe in coal.”
While he also said he supported developing renewable energy sources, Bost vowed to fight against stringent federal rules that keep coal plants idle and mines empty.
Scott Air Force Base and national defense
Panelists asked Bradshaw how she squares her support for Scott Air Force Base while also subscribing to a Green Party platform that calls for a 50 percent reduction of defense spending and an elimination of overseas military bases.
“The U.S. government spends $80 million a minute on so-called defense spending. We’re trying to maintain an empire,” Bradshaw said. “Scott Air Force Base is not an overseas base, it is a home base. That’s what defense should be about.”
Bost, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said he appreciated how supportive St. Clair County has been to Scott Air Force Base and the service members stationed there. He said other communities — like Twentynine Palms, California, where he was stationed — aren’t so supportive.
“I’ve been working with them on every front to make sure their mission is provided for,” he said.
Baricevic said Scott Air Force Base needs a strong advocate and blasted Bost over the decision by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s choice not to locate its new western headquarters adjacent to the base.
“At the federal level, Congressman Bost couldn’t deliver the mail,” Baricevic said. “(Former U.S. Rep.) Jerry Costello kept Scott Air Force Base open with force of will alone. That’s the kind of representative we need in the state of Illinois.”
That was the second time Baricevic mentioned the famed former metro-east Congressman, and it led to what was the debate’s only tense moment.
“I know Jerry Costello,” Bost said. “And you’re no Jerry Costello.”
Baricevic fired back: “Is that the old JFK line?”
The candidates also described how they would handle the skyrocketing cost of college tuition and ballooning student debt.
“Higher education should be free,” Bradshaw said. She also bashed federal rules that make it impossible for students to default on student debt. “I don’t think health and education should be for-profit. We should think of it as an investment in our future. It cripples the younger generation to have this student debt.”
Student debt is something Baricevic said he knows about first-hand.
“If I’m fortunate enough to get elected, I might be the only member of Congress with student loan debt,” Baricevic said. “It ain’t no fun.”
“I’ve always advocated for fair, though not free, tuition,” he added. “We can close corporate and mega-wealthy tax loopholes. We can make them pay their fair share. Almost $800 billion is lost each year because corporations don’t pay their fair share.”
Bost said lawmakers need “to work to try to get those costs down.” He advocated for working with employers and trade schools to expand programs for students who want to work but who do not want to earn traditional — and expensive — four-year degrees.
Relating to constituents
It wouldn’t be a political event without reference to Ken Bone, the Shiloh man who became internet-famous earlier this month after asking presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton a question during their debate in St. Louis.
Panelists asked how the candidates would relate to everyday people like Bone.
Baricevic said, “I talk to people every day about the struggles of just paying their bills. Everyone tells us the most important (issue) is the economy. It’s their jobs, will they be able to put food on their table.”
Bost said he was around when the power plant Ken Bone works in — Ken Bone does work at a power plant as an engineer — was built, and added he’d fight federal rules that could threaten the plant’s future and put Bone’s job at risk.
“I’ve been a union firefighter. I understand the unions. My whole family on my mother’s side was coal miners,” he said. “I’m able to work and relate with everyone in the district to achieve what we need to achieve.”
Bradshaw said people are hungry for a raise, saying that the Ken Bones of the world want to make a living wage and support their families. She said putting people to work via her party’s Green New Deal would give normal folks a shot at improving their lives.
Candidates closed the debate by summing up their selling points.
“I understand what goes on in the 12th and how to deliver that message in Washington,” Bost said. “It has been an honor and privilege to serve you in Washington, D.C. It’s been one of the proudest things I’ve ever done in my life. Send me back to continue to do that.”
Baricevic said he was the voice the people in the district need and that citizens deserve “the best and the brightest” in Congress. He added that folks in the 12th need a representative who will “make sure they’re heard, and it seems that’s not the case (currently).”
Voters have the final say Nov. 8. The district covers most of southwestern Illinois, stretching from Alton to Cairo, and includes areas such as Mount Vernon, Carbondale, Marion and Benton.