U.S. Senate Debate Closes Upbeat Texas Dem Convention

M.J. Hegar and Royce West seize the center

U.S. Senate candidates M.J. Hegar and Royce West met in a high-speed, hour-long TV debate Saturday evening. The two Dems, headed to a July 14 run-off, dodged direct disputes and staked out the middle ground on guns, climate change, and racial reconciliation.

Young Texas Democrats yearning for more aggressively transformative policy positions were likely underwhelmed; Texas Republicans who have been hearing GOP leaders reflexively denounce Democratic candidates as “radical socialists” might have wondered if they could believe their ears.

MJ Hegar (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In March, Hegar and West survived an indecisive 12-candidate first round in which military veteran Hegar garnered 22.3% and longtime state Sen. West 14.5% – their immediate task is to promote their campaigns among the Democratic majority that chose one or another of their rivals. Hegar is running partly on her unique war-hero background and her subsequent fights with the Defense Department on behalf of women soldiers, and also her near-defeat of incumbent Rep. John Carter in 2018. West, a steadfast fixture of the state Senate since 1993, touts his lengthy legislative experience as a "coalition-builder" and his legal career as both private practice attorney and prosecutor.

An hour-long TV debate is not the most informative campaign occasion, with the breathlessness of both questions and answers providing the impression of speed-dating for votes. A question from Dallas Morning News correspondent Gromer Jeffers – “How would you plan to end police brutality, in 30 seconds?” – suggests the absurdity of the entire exercise. (Jeffers paired with KXAN-TV’s Sally Hernandez, with an occasional assist from emcee Robert Hadlock.) But the candidates delivered high-speed answers (some allotted an entire minute) to the high-speed inquiries, and acquitted themselves reasonably well, while dodging specifics that could be turned into GOP oppo-ads.

On the current protests: Each said the protests are legitimate expressions of anger against mistreatment and racial discrimination, while deflecting questions about isolated lawbreaking. “Don’t lose sight of the issue of racial justice,” summarized West.

Royce West (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On the pandemic, and additional federal stimulus: Hegar said re-opening must be done carefully, and West added that it can’t be separated from greater testing. Both supported more federal stimulus, suggesting further costs can be borne by (Hegar) higher taxes on corporations and (West) on millionaires and above.

On health care: Rather than “Medicare for All,” both candidates support expanding and “fixing” the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and in Texas, Medicaid; Hegar proposed a “public option” for the ACA, and added reproductive choice for women.

On Immigration: Neither support abolishing “ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), saying the real problems are Trump Administration policies and execution; Hegar said we must “stop the [border] wall” and “provide a pathway to citizenship”; West said ICE will be reformed under a Biden presidency, and the DACA (“Dreamers”) program will be reinforced (noting he employs Dreamers on his current Senate staff).

On reefer: Both candidates support decriminalizing marijuana possession and expunging the sentences of non-violent inmates convicted of possession; in perhaps the only headline-bait of the evening, both candidates acknowledged previous marijuana use, West describing it as a “youthful indiscretion.”

Term limits?: To a question that began as one about relative experience (Hegar saying she lobbied for progressive legislation but is not part of the government “industry,” and West pointing to his legislative experience but agreeing with Hegar that 12 years is a sufficient term limit for both senators and House members. (He’s been a state senator since 1993 – neither raised the issue of term limits granting greater de facto power to the permanent corporate lobby.)

On gun laws: While neither support mandatory federal buy-backs of assault-style weaponry, Hegar said civilians don’t need “weapons of war” and West said any buy-back program should be voluntary. Both support universal background checks for gun purchases, enabling CDC research on gun violence, other incremental reforms.

On climate change: Pressed on a response to hydrocarbon fracking, neither directly supported a ban; Hegar supports “aggressive” but “responsible” approaches, West suggested a moratorium on fracking, pending additional research. Neither support the Green New Deal outright, instead piecemeal programs supported by research.

Reparations for slavery?: Asked their opinions of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s proposed legislation supporting economic reparations to the descendants of former slaves, Hegar supported more research; West said he’s familiar with the Jackson Lee proposal, adding “I lean toward reparations,” without committing. Asked about the “price tag,” both candidates said that the range and time of any expenditures would be flexible.

How Can a Dem Win? Noting the long drought of statewide Texas Democratic victories, a reporter asked what might be different this cycle. Hegar noted the growing Democratic energy and Cornyn’s vulnerability; West: “This is an historic moment … a perfect historic storm” and said a united Democratic coalition would defeat Cornyn.

In closing, both candidates directly addressed their November GOP opponent, avoiding direct attacks on each other. Hegar: Of Cornyn, “We’re just not into you"; West: “Democrats have an opportunity to make history …”

As a potential occasion to spark joy in a passionate Democratic base, the TV and online debate didn’t exactly bring the fire. On the other hand, if the candidates' mutual goal was to avoid obvious gaffes while providing a convincingly moderate vision for those precious suburban swing voters watching TV politics on a Saturday night, they may well have succeeded.

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Primary Election 2020, MJ Hegar, Royce West, Texas Democratic Party, July 2020 Elections

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