Three weeks before voters will cast their ballots in Kansas primaries, three Republican candidates took the stage during a debate to discuss their views on such topics as border security, statewide mask mandates and racial inequality.
The 2nd Congressional District debate, moderated by political scientist Bob Beatty, took place Tuesday night in KSNT’s studio.
Incumbent Rep. Steve Watkins, Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner and Dennis Taylor had 30 minutes to share their thoughts during the first and only 2nd District debate.
Criminal charges filed against Watkins by Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay shortly before the debate became the first topic up for discussion.
Watkins maintained his innocence regarding the charges and called them hyperpolitical and suspicious.
"I haven’t done anything wrong," Watkins said. "As soon as I realized that I had put my mailing address instead of my physical address, we fixed it. This is very suspicious, seems highly political (and) we’ve cooperated with the district attorney completely."
Watkins has been charged with three felonies, including voting without being qualified, unlawful advance voting and interference with law enforcement involving false information. He also faces a misdemeanor charge of failing to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of a change of address.
The charges are linked to the November 2019 election.
Watkins said he hadn’t seen the charges but looked forward to clearing his name.
LaTurner said the newly announced charges make it clear the race is now between Taylor and himself.
"Three weeks from now, Republican voters across the 2nd Congressional District are going to have to pick the very best candidate to go against the mayor of Topeka, Michelle De La Isla," LaTurner said. "She is well-funded, she is a candidate supported by Nancy Pelosi and we need to put our best foot forward. Clearly, our current congressman with three felony charges and a misdemeanor charge is not the person to do that."
LaTurner called for Watkins to take responsibility for his actions, "own up to it and deal with the legal issues heading his way."
The 30-minute debate covered several topics, including border security, the COVID-19 pandemic and issues related to racial tension and law enforcement.
Beatty asked candidates how they think a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide should be handled and whether they agree with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who recently said the country was not well-prepared and that its response was "flat-flooted."
Watkins praised President Donald Trump's efforts to curtail the coronavirus and said he has taken decisive actions.
"We’ve never had a spike that exceeded our medical capabilities in any particular geography," Watkins said. "It’s gonna be tough. Now is a horrible time for partisanship. We need to stick together and see this through."
Taylor agreed with Moran’s statement, saying that the country hasn’t done what is needed since learning about the seriousness of COVID-19.
"What happens in Florida and Texas and Arizona I am afraid is coming here unless we do testing," Taylor said. "We should be doing 20 million tests a day. We are doing about 650,000 on average."
When asked whether or not everyone should be required to wear masks given the rise in new COVID-19 cases, Watkins voiced his disapproval of statewide mask mandates.
"I wear a mask to slow the spread, I wear a mask often," Watkins said. "When I’m flying I wear a mask. That’s my choice, and it’s (an) individual’s choice to balance that with the risk."
The debate topic turned toward race relations and policing at the end as Beatty asked the candidates if major police reform is needed in the United States.
"The tragic shooting of George Floyd was a tragedy and the violent response to it has been a tragedy," LaTurner said. "There is a bad apple or two in every single profession under the sun, including the police, and where those bad apples are found we need to take care of it swiftly. But we cannot allow a bad apple or two to define an entire profession."
Watkins said he has been in communication with law enforcement officials and talked with them about important issues, including qualified immunity, no-knock warrants, cameras, collective bargaining and funding.
"We’ve got a political party that wants to decrease the funding of police as crime is on the rise in our big cities," Watkins said. "So it’s time to come together and realize that 99.9% of the law enforcement professionals are fantastic individuals. I support them completely and when it comes to African Americans, I ask that they look at what Donald Trump has delivered — the lowest unemployment rates, opportunity zones, criminal justice reform and home ownership’s on the rise. Results matter, taglines don’t."
Taylor, who noted he has police officers and people of color within his family, said he feels the country is on the cusp of needing to decide whether or not law enforcement is being asked to take on tasks that are beyond their expertise.
"We need to decide that as a community and as a country," Taylor said. "We need to be looking at this, and this is the time to be checking out whether we really want chokeholds, whether we really want qualified immunity."