Thursday, May 12, 2016

Congressional candidates face local voters

There’s not a lot of daylight between Mike Pape and Jason Batts on policy matters, but at a town hall meeting last month in Marion, each of the Republican congressional candidates put miles between themselves and the moderate wing of the GOP, not to mention Democrats in Washington, D.C.

The town hall on April 28 night at Fohs Hall was a bit of a departure from political events in recent years sponsored by Crittenden County Republican Party. Half of the field vying for the party’s nomination to fill an open seat on Capitol Hill took the stage at the community center to answer questions on issues submitted from the audience. While the local party has worked to bring candidates to the county for events in the past, they have essentially served as a platform for politicians to offer rehearsed comments on a whistlestop and discuss policy one-on-one with only a handful of voters aggressive enough to push for details.

The new format was a hit.

“It was a helluva good show,” said local pundit Gordon Guess, who probably knows national politics as well as anyone in the 1st Congressional District. “This offered a lot of substance.”

Former Kentucky agriculture commissioner and gubernatorial candidate James Comer was also on the billing, but cancelled just hours before the town hall, according to Fred Stubblefield, vice chairman of the county’s GOP. A fourth Republican candidate, Herndon farmer Miles A. Caughey Jr., whose campaign has registered little more than a blip on the radar, also sat out the chance to reach Crittenden County voters.

In stark contrast to the bitter presidential campaigns playing out in the media, Pape and Batts seemed to reach the few dozen voters at Fohs Hall – including a handful of Democrats – through substance, not slurs. At times, the two even made a point to compliment the other. Pape did, however, take a few shots at Comer, who is perceived as the frontrunner, though no independent polling less than two weeks before the May 17 primary has proven such.

In 1994, Ed Whitfield became the first-ever Republican elected to represent Kentucky’s 1st District in Congress. Last summer, Whitfield decided to make his 11th term in office his last, opening the field for a new set of GOP hopefuls like Pape and Batts.

While only nuances on policy separated the two men April 28 under the spotlights at Fohs Hall, the candidates took pains to underscore the biggest difference in their resumes – experience.

Pape, though he has never held public office, clearly holds the lead in political maturity. For 21 years, he served as Whitfield’s top man on the ground in Kentucky, working out of the congressman’s field office in Hopkinsville, where both men call home. In that role, Pape has visited all 35 counties in the district that encompasses all of far western Kentucky and spreads across much of south-central Kentucky. In fact, he is on a first name basis with most every county and city leader in the district, including those in Crittenden County.

“I have unmatched experience in representing the people of the 1st District,” Pape said in his opening comments, a statement he would repeat throughout the evening, touting his familiarity with issues concerning most western Kentucky conservatives from social issues to a $19 trillion national debt.

Meantime, Batts calls himself a different kind of candidate, a true establishment outsider. Unlike Pape and Comer, he is new to the political arena outside of his home county of Hickman, where he serves as county attorney. He sees that as his advantage over his opponents.

“I’m running because I’m absolutely fed up with Washington,” said the captain in the U.S. Army Reserves who has served as a military prosecutor. “I’m fed up with the direction of this country.”

Throughout the night, each man followed the other in answering question after question from the town hall moderator, Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White, who selected topics from questions submitted prior to the event by voters in the crowd. On issue after issue, the two seemed to echo the sentiments of the audience, which cast its approval with applause.

Some of the issues addressed included:

Term limits
Both canddiates have pledged to limit their time on the Hill. Pape has restricted himself to 12 years, calling career politicians, including those in his own party, a big part of the nation’s problem. “They are too comfortable and too far removed,” he said, excluding his former boss from the suggestion. “I see that in what doesn’t happen in Congress today.”

Batts did not restrict himself to a specific number of terms, but said, “If we want to change Washington, we have to end career politicians.”

Gun control
Both want to strengthen the rights of gun owners and adamantly oppose any efforts to restrict ownership.

“As a prosecutor and soldier, I know how critical the 2nd Amendment is to our lives,” Batts said. “The 2nd Amendment is 27 words worth fighting for.”

“It’s a fundamental right we have as Americans,” Pape echoed.

Religious liberties
Liberal justices have gone too far in their efforts to remove the influences of Christianity on the daily lives of Americans, the two agreed.

“The first thing you do (to protect religious liberties) is follow the Constitution,” said Pape. “Congress should come back and legislate, in effect, to overturn the courts.”

“(Religious freedoms) are placed at the front of the Constitution for a reason,” Batts added. “We are a Christian nation.”

Both candidates are opposed to the federal government legalizing gay marriage, preferring instead to let each state decide the issue’s.

War on coal
Batts called the war on coal “one of the primary battlefields in the country.”

“All of us are impacted by the carrot and stick policy of Obama” in regard to energy policy, Batts said. “Alternative energy gets the carrot; coal gets the stick.”

“We have to reign in the EPA,” Pape said, calling the agency Obama’s tool to destroy coal. “It makes no sense at all. It wipes out our cheapest energy by over-regulating.”

Both men said the EPA is emblematic of a larger problem – overreach by the federal government that is negatively impacting the lives of the average American, particularly in coal country where local economies has been devastated by the loss of top jobs.

National defense
When asked the most important role of the federal government, Pape and Batts agreed that national defense is paramount and a stronger military is needed to carry out that duty.

Channeling the philosophy of President Ronald Reagan, his political idol, Pape said the best way to achieve peace is through strength.

“We’ve got to restore our military,” explained Pape, whose  wife’s brother was killed in Afghanistan. “We have to be a force for good so when we say something, the world knows we mean it and can back it up.”

Speaking as a veteran of the regular Army and current reservist, Batts railed on the issue of the federal government’s responsibilities.

“Their role is to protect our country, back the Constitution and stay out of our lives,” he said. “Washington doesn't understand. (Obama) won't even say ‘radical Islam.’ Well, I don't have any problem saying it. PC or not, we have to kill them first before they get us.”

Each extended their concern about protecting Americans to a porous southern border that threatens national security by allowing both foreign terrorists and illegal aliens into circulation. Increasing border security is the only way to reduce those threats, and building a wall is part of the answer along with adding more personnel.

Pape is the son of a legal German immigrant.

Pape is also the son of a World War II and Korean War veteran. He said he is embarrassed at how the nation’s veterans are treated, particularly when it comes to their health care.

“Veterans should be able to go to the doctor here in Marion and get treatment, not have to wait in line at the VA and fill out complicated paperwork.”

“Career politicians have failed our veterans and failed us all,” Batts said. “Three hundred thousand veterans have died awaiting care.”

Other issues
Both candidates identified as pro-life and advocated cutting all federal monies to Planned Parenthood. And reigning in the national debt with a balanced budget amendment is a must, they agreed. 

Ending Obamacare is a priority, too, each calling the President’s solution to health care issues in America as the worst thing to happen to health care in America.

Pape and Batts seemed careful to distance themselves from the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Donald Trump’s name was not mentioned once all night.

This story first appeared in the May 5 issue of The Crittenden Press.