GREENWICH — In their first, and likely only, face-to-face debate, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, and his Republican opponent Jonathan Riddle clashed Sunday afternoon over several hot-button issues.
The debate, held at the Westport Library with no audience and streamed via Zoom, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut. A Greenwich resident, Himes is running for his seventh term to represent the 4th Congressional District against Riddle, a Norwalk resident who works in financial consulting and wealth management and is seeking political office for the first time.
It did not take long for the two to show off their differences, starting with their views on the Affordable Care Act, whose future is at stake with a Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard next month.
Himes, who voted for the ACA when it was passed under President Barack Obama, said he would continue to “defend it relentlessly” even though he said it needs to provide health care coverage to more people and at lower costs. He pledged he would “never” support repealing the ACA.
“Most Americans get their insurance from their employer, and in the last eight months, 20 million Americans have stopped having an employer,” he said. “Where do they go? Well they go to the (health care) exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act. One of the most toxic things we’ve seen in this last decade is people on the other side of the aisle saying it was a failure and I’m going to repeal it and propose another plan.”
But Riddle said the ACA hasn’t done a good job and said a new plan is needed.
“The ACA does have some pretty good points, but by and large, it is a massive failure that has not provided the proper insurance to millions of Americans,” he said. “The lies that were told about it, like ‘if you like your plan you can keep it’ wasn’t true. … ‘Your premiums will be cut,’ when in actuality they went up.”
The exchanges eliminated competition and created a “stifling environment” with only a single insurer available in some states, Riddle said. The ACA should be “completely replaced,” he said, with the parts that work brought over to a new plan, while creating competition between states, which he said would drive down prices and provide better coverage.
“When I’m in Congress, I’m going to bring a bill that is going to be competitive, that’s going to bring transparency and that’s going to protect preexisting conditions,” Riddle said.
Himes said the ACA needs to be enhanced, not repealed.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “We need to lower costs, absolutely. The whole system is too expensive. That’s why the right answer is to build on the successes of the Affordable Care Act and make sure people have access to high quality at a reasonable price.”
Himes added that Republicans have yet to propose a plan that would do what Riddle was promising.
“I’d like to give everybody a unicorn, but you probably ought to ask me how,” Himes said. “They don’t have a plan for how.”
Riddle said people need health care, “but we need to do it the right way. We need to allow free markets to drive competition and drive prices down.”
The two candidates also split on additional economic stimulus plans to combat the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of the Democratic majority in the House, Himes supported the bipartisan stimulus bill in March and has voted for two subsequent packages, neither of which have come up for a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Riddle said that Congress was not doing enough and needs to help people who have lost their jobs.
“Our small businesses and individuals are suffering through this pandemic and government-enforced lockdowns,” he said. “It’s unfathomable that Congress is dragging its feet on a couple of dollars where they cannot agree what to do here. You have Nancy Pelosi’s bill with $3.2 trillion that frankly wants to save bankrupt states like California and New York and Illinois and Connecticut even. They’re making the coronavirus the issue of the fiscal irresponsibility of these states. I wouldn’t stand for us that in Congress.”
Himes pushed back on that claim, saying the money was going to states and municipalities to meet shortfalls caused by the pandemic and to pay police officers, firefighters, nurses and teachers.
He blamed the lack of progress on a second stimulus package on President Donald Trump and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Mr. Riddle says it’s the Congress, but we’ve passed three bills,” Himes said. “The president in contrast, if you look at his Twitter feed, in a 48-hour (span) said he was ‘stopping the whole effort and shutting it down.’ Two days later, he said ‘let’s go big.’ That’s a hard guy to negotiate with. Mitch McConnell can’t pass anything. It is a tragedy, but it isn’t about the Congress. It’s about the failure of the president and Mitch McConnell, two Republicans, to actually appreciate the pain and the tragedy people are feeling right now.”
Differences of opinion
Himes and Riddle are also split on immigration, with Himes continuing to oppose the wall and Riddle supporting it as a way to protect the border. They also sharply clashed on the policy of family separation at the border.
“I talked to a woman who couldn’t get words out because her two daughters had been removed from her company,” said Himes, who toured a maximum security detention facility for people stopped at the border. “She didn’t know where they were. We were a moral and humane country, and this president changed that. He separated families in a profoundly un-American act.”
Riddle noted it was a program started by Obama.
“It is tragic, but we are a country of laws,” Riddle said. “Unfortunately when you have a zero-tolerance policy, it’s a criminal law. If I have a child in my car and I am pulled over for DUI, I get separated from that child. I broke the law. I go to jail and that child goes to DHS.”
Riddle pushed Himes on why more hasn’t been done on immigration reform in his 12 years in Congress. Himes said efforts at comprehensive reform, including a bipartisan Senate bill, have been blocked by Republicans.
The candidates found common ground on transportation infrastructure. Riddle pushed for more repairs on bridges and roads and for better train service.
“We should be having a conversation about putting in a rail system from Boston to Washington, D.C., similar to what they’ve done in Italy, China and Japan,” he said. “We’ve fallen tremendously behind on our infrastructure system. It is crumbling, and it’s high time the federal government steps up along with the state.”
Himes responded by saying, “In the spirit of bipartisanship for the first time this evening I agree with everything Mr. Riddle said. This has been an incredible priority for me.”
No other debates are currently scheduled in the race. On Sunday, Himes mentioned that the debate was the first time he had met Riddle.
Brian Merlen, a candidate running for the seat on the Independent Party line, was not part of Sunday’s debate.
The 4th Congressional District encompasses Bridgeport, Darien, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Monroe, New Canaan, Norwalk, Oxford, Redding, Ridgefield, part of Shelton, Stamford, Trumbull, Weston, Westport and Wilton.