Tornadoes to the southwest of Des Moines threatened to cut short the 3rd District Democrats’ forum in Johnston on Wednesday night, but the candidates in the room were at least all blowing in the same direction on policy issues. Meanwhile, the 1st District forum proved a much stormier affair with Pat Murphy constantly pressing Monica Vernon on her past Republican Party affiliation.
The difference in tone and discussion was sharp between the 1st and 3rd candidates. It was clear there’s some real animosity between the two 1st District rivals who battled in the 2014 primary as well. The 3rd District candidates made a few very subtle digs at one another, but it was largely an “I agree with him” kind of night.
Here’s Starting Line’s rundown of each forum:
1st District Democrats
Pat Murphy and Monica Vernon
Hosted by Jones County Democrats in Monticello on Saturday (4/23)
About 35 people gathered at the city hall chambers in Monticello, a dozen of which were with a campaign or the press. Murphy and Vernon were separated at the table by a local journalist who asked each candidate seven questions, with time for rebuttal for each.
Murphy had one consistent theme throughout the forum that he hit on early and often: Vernon used to be a Republican so you can’t trust her to uphold progressive principles.
“When I was working on all of those issues [in the Legislature], Monica Vernon was still a Republican, writing out checks to Republicans,” Murphy said in his opening statement. “In the last debate, she said you can’t connect the dots. Well folks, if I write out checks to Tom Harkin, to Bill Clinton, to the Democratic parties and the Iowa Truman Fund, I’m supporting Democrats for office. If you write out checks to Tom Latham, who was running against a pro-choice woman, or to Phil Graham who killed Hillarycare in the 1990s, or to the Linn County Eagles, which is a Republican group or Linn County Republican Women, you are supporting that ticket in that election.”
Murphy then asked if Vernon would sign a pledge keeping Super PAC money out of their primary, though there wasn’t really a time for her to reply directly. EMILY’s List is supporting Vernon, likely Murphy’s target.
“I’m not a professional politician – I’m a working mom who built a small business,” Vernon replied when asked how she can best take on Congressman Rod Blum. “I understand what it takes to make a fairer economy. But I also spent eight years in government, at a very tough time as mayor pro temp in Cedar Rapids, working hard to bring that city back from the floods.”
Both candidates discussed at length the Affordable Care Act.
“My wife and I for six months this past year were on the Affordable Care Act, and I can tell you there needs to be improvements. But there’s 18 million Americans that depend on the Affordable Care Act,” Murphy said, adding that he’d expand Medicaid and give incentives to make sure there’s adequate doctor coverage so people don’t have to drive far distances to see one.
“I’d look at drug prices – whatever we can do to allow the bargaining of lower drug prices,” noted Vernon, also saying she’d not put a tax on good healthcare plans that labor unions often negotiate for.
After a bit on water quality in which both stressed the need for cleaner water and better infrastructure, they talked about their priorities for funding cuts and increases.
“We’ve got to stop subsidizing big oil,” Vernon stated. “You put incentives out there for things you want to have happen. We’re trying to use more renewables. I’d place incentives right there for wind turbines and solar arrays … I’d also end tax breaks for off-shoring, any kind of operations from U.S. corporations.”
“I’m against the sequester that Congress currently does – it adversely affects people on food stamps, it affects people on different programs like education and health care,” Murphy said. “We need to focus on universal pre-school.”
The candidates then got three separate questions on foreign policy, most of which essentially boiled down to what to do with the conflict in the Middle East. The answers weren’t too substantive, aside from both pledging to not put American soldiers on the ground in the Syria conflict. Murphy did use the section to point out he opposed George W. Bush’s election and the foreign policy consequences it caused, and again brought up Vernon’s past Republican leanings.
While Vernon didn’t hit Murphy on any major issue, Murphy still did a little preemptive defense. He emphasized his work in the Legislature to protect women’s rights and healthcare, along with expanding stem cell research – which he noted is now being used by the University of Iowa to research cures for blindness. Vernon and women’s organizations have criticized Murphy during this campaign over his past pro-life stances, so this was likely an effort to shore up that flank.
The one emotional moment of the forum came when Murphy explained what it meant to him to be a Democrat.
“I remember my dad – as I was a young kid sitting at the table – as a labor leader in Dubuque saying, ‘If the Democratic Party doesn’t look out for you, you never get a break.’ He’s been right,” Murphy said, choking up a bit.
Vernon herself played most of the forum in a rather subdued, cautious manner in contrast to Murphy’s more aggressive style. That is, until they got to their closing statements, when Vernon went last and used it to lay into Murphy after he once again hit her Republican contributions in his own closing.
“Well, it’s true I haven’t always been a Democrat. But I’m a very, very proud Democrat today,” Vernon began. “I was the unanimous Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor here in Iowa in 2014. I proudly traveled the state for our party and went throughout the 99 counties meeting people … I’ve been endorsed by Dave Loebsack, by Christie Vilsack, by Tom Miller, by dozens of statehouse reps and senators. I have been. You haven’t been, Pat.”
“We both applied to be a part of the U.S. House Progressive PAC. And guess what happened? They rejected him, they endorsed me,” she continued. “I’ve been endorsed by ten labor unions, some of which supported Pat in the last cycle. They have moved over and supported me because they know I’m the only Democrat up here who can beat Rod Blum in the Fall.”
It felt like Vernon was waiting the entire forum to unload on Murphy. Once she had the opportunity to do so without Murphy having a chance to respond, she did, and called on the attendees to look more at the future of what the candidates can accomplish. Vernon quickly left the forum after while Murphy chatted with audience members.
The forum essentially boiled down the main dynamic of the 1st District primary. Both are pretty similar on the issues, at least on what both believe today. If most voters agree with Murphy’s point that Vernon can’t be trusted due to her past Republican stance, he could win a second time despite being far behind in fundraising this time. If voters instead agree with the many elected Democrats and labor unions that have endorsed Vernon that it’s not a big deal, Congressman Blum will likely be facing a different opponent this year.
by Pat Rynard