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U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Theresa Greenfield talked COVID-19, systemic racism, defunding the police and more Thursday

Theresa Greenfield, left, the Democratic challenger in the November 3, 2020, election for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Joni Ernst, right, a Republican.
Theresa Greenfield, left, the Democratic challenger in the November 3, 2020, election for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Joni Ernst, right, a Republican.(Courtesy Photos)
Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 6:20 PM CDT
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Iowa (KWQC) - U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and Theresa Greenfield, who is running against Ernst, debated Thursday evening in Iowa.

The debate, which began at 6:30 p.m., covered various topics including the CARES Act, COVID-19 and the SCOTUS hearing.

Sen. Ernst and Greenfield video-called in for the debate amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While faced with technical difficulties the two powered through to answer questions that were being asked by the Des Moines Register, KCCI, KWWL and KTIV.

According to the Des Moines Register, they published a poll last month with Mediacom Iowa Poll that showed Greenfield leading by 3 percentage points, which was within the margin of error. The Des Moines Register reports that other polls have suggested the race is a toss-up.

At the height of the pandemic, an estimated 22 million Americans have lost their jobs that of course means for most of them they lost their health insurance as well. In the Senate, if you’re reelected can you assure Iowans tonight that they’ll always have access to affordable health care insurance even if they lose their job in circumstances that we’re seeing now during the pandemic?

Sen. Ernst: This has been a very difficult time for Iowans and of course all of America as we’re going through the COVID19 pandemic. What we have to do is make sure that there is access to affordable quality health care which is where we are really working in the United States Senate and the Congress to find a way to provide affordable health care to all Iowans. What we have seen under Obamacare while it did increase access to insurance what it did not do was control the cost of health care that’s why I’ve been diligently working across the aisle on a number of different packages whether it’s controlling the cost of prescription drugs. We did pass a law called the Creates Act which expanded access to various generic products working with Senator Grassley as well to make sure that we are closing the medicare donut loophole is what they call it and again just making sure that we have access to affordable insurance products, not what we have right now.

7.9 is the unemployment right now in Iowa and that’s down slightly so that’s an improvement however the growth in jobs slowed considerably from August to September. With Iowa and many states still considered in the red zone what is your specific plan to help get Iowans back to work safely but yet all importantly increase their spending power and give a big boost to our economy?

Greenfield: Well Washington has failed us during this crisis and of course Sen. Ernst has failed us too. Early on she refused to support expanding unemployment benefits and providing paid sick leave. It was a fight for her and I have been calling for a phase four stimulus package for months and we have to focus on health and safety, you bet, but to your point workers - we are in a crisis right now. We need to extend those expanded unemployment benefits whether I am talking to breweries, bakeries, barbershops, bowling alleys, those small businesses are struggling. Their cash flow is down 60 or 80 percent. They’ve told me they’re worried about keeping the lights on. So we need to take care of our workers but we also need to expand the PPP and make sure that our small businesses know that we and they can get through this crisis together. After all, Iowa’s a state of small-town and small businesses.

Sen. Ernst (rebuttal): I do remember in 2009 when we went through the economic downturn during the Biden-Obama administration and Montgomery County, my home county, where I still reside today, saw the second-highest unemployment rate across the state of Iowa. So I do understand those difficulties that are out there. Many of my friends, family members were laid off during that time but certainly supporting the packages such as the CARES package has been important and my opponent has opposed every single one of those packages. We really have to get that work done. I am here in D.C. working on those packages.

Sen. Ernst (answer to the question): I have worked extensively on the COVID packages that have gone through the Congress and again, PPP was a project that I worked on. Childcare support so that moms and dads can get back to work safely has been very, very important. All of that has been really important. We need to continue that. We do have a package we will be voting on next week and we hope that we can get that done without Senate Democrats blocking the way.

I want to begin with specific quotes referenced by both candidates in that Iowa PBS debate. I think it’s clear we need to hear what they both said in context and then I’ll ask my question. Sen. Ernst, you had said that “Theresa Greenfield has stated that our law enforcement system is systemically racist meaning that our law enforcement officers are racist.” Theresa Greenfield, you said in response “We have systemic racism in all of our systems and have for generations including our policing system but that is not saying that our police officers are racist.”

Where does change start?

Greenfield: I think change starts with each of us and it certainly starts with our elected leaders recognizing first and foremost that we do have systemic racism. If you’re not clear that that’s part of our system then you can’t be at the table to lead the change, to listen, and to take action to end discrimination. It starts with working together. I certainly have been working with the black legislative caucus right here in Iowa and will work with anyone to make sure that we are taking action to end systemic racism and it’s not just in policing. I’ll tell you what, in health care, I’m worried about maternal mortality rates with black women. That rate is much higher than the rest of the state so we need to work in our healthcare systems too to end that kind of racial bias. I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and working with everyone to tackle systemic racism.

Sen. Ernst: Of course I’ve started actions towards repairing relations long before we started seeing this movement, long before we saw the tragic loss of life with George Floyd, his murder. Certainly, there are ways we can do that. Now I was a co-author of the Ban the Box legislation with Senator Cory Booker, of New Jersey, who is a very good partner to me on a number of these activities. But certainly, as I said, supporting those pell grant activities in our prison system, very important. Because not only do we want to provide communities of color those who are incarcerated with those opportunities. But what I find is often it comes back to the fact that poverty, maybe not necessarily racism here in the state of Iowa, but how we do tackle those issues of poverty. And this can be urban, it can be rural because I see it across the communities in the state of Iowa and we really do have to provide opportunity out there and again I’ve been working in a bipartisan way with friends and other members in the Senate to do so.

Do you think this summer’s protests were helpful or harmful in raising awareness to racial issues in Iowa? Defunding the police resurfaced out of those protests. What does that phrase mean to you?

Greenfield: I’ll always stand for our first amendment right and that includes the right to free speech and to protests. I’ll tell you what though, looting and damaging property, that’s not part of protesting. I was a small business owner, I worked with many small businesses and I don’t like to see the damage to our storefronts and to our properties. But absolutely, we do need to march and we do need to protest in a nonviolent and peaceful way to make sure that our voices are heard. I’m proud of the Black Lives Matter leaders here in our state who absolutely, predominately, have been making their voices heard in a nonviolent way.

I don’t support defunding the police so somebody else will have to give me the definition but I do tell you this we have got to look at reforms across all of our systems and certainly policing. I come from a long line of law enforcement officers, my father in law was a police officer. He always talked about serving and protecting and protecting and serving. He had a lot of pride in stopping by the sandlots to meet with the kids and knowing everyone in his community. We got to get back to building that strong community policing, we need to support our law enforcement officers by investing in a couple of things. One, mental health care services. Too often we’re asking law enforcement officers to provide those mental health care services and our jail certainly have become a place where folks in crisis are taken. We need to make sure that we invest in mental health care and then I think we need to Ban the Box, something federally throughout this country because it’s the best step to make sure that folks do not reenter and they have the opportunity to get a job and provide for their families and rebuild their lives.

Sen. Ernst: I think the protests as they initially started after again the very tragic death of George Floyd. I think as they started and as they were peaceful, I think they were very very helpful but as they digressed back to looting and damaging of not only those small businesses but federal property, I think it really smeared those that were trying to do good through those protests. And as I stated many months ago you can’t hear those peaceful protesters over the sounds of shattering glass and splintering wood. That is certainly not appropriate. I do think that we have slid backward in this movement. Now, in the Senate, we did take up the Justice Act, which was authored by Tim Scott of South Carolina. It was a wonderful bill that had 70 percent of what our Democratic friends were asking for but they refused to even move on the bill on the floor of the Senate. I’m so proud of the legislators here in the great state of Iowa that got the work done but again, Senate Democrats were not willing to move forward on the bill in the Senate and I think that was a shame we should be a lot further along than we are right now.

Well, the phrase has been tossed around so liberally by liberals and certainly, the folks that are funding my opponent is a group-based support radical environmental ideas. They support defunding the police and we actually see that type of activity going on right now with the COVID relief package that is being proposed by Nancy Pelosi, which was one of Ms. Greenfield’s early supporters in the 2018 Congressional campaign. So she of course is being backed by all these folks that support liberal ideas, stripping away funds, taking those funds away from police departments in the COVID19 relief bill that’s not what Iowans want but it is certainly what Ms. Greenfield’s backers are supporting.

Greenfield (rebuttal): This shouldn’t take long. I don’t support defunding the police and it’s unfortunate that Sen., my opponent, continues to be misleading and misrepresenting on that. But I do support reforms in all of our systems so that we can tackle discrimination and we can tackle systemic racism and we have done a great job at getting started in that in Iowa.

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