U.S. Senate candidates debate agriculture, immigration

Candidates for U.S. Senate in Arkansas participated Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in the Arkansas PBS debate at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway. The participants, from left: Libertarian candidate Kenneth Cates, Democratic candidate Natalie James, and Republican incumbent John Boozman. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate - 102122)

Candidates for U.S. Senate in Arkansas participated Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in the Arkansas PBS debate at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway. The participants, from left: Libertarian candidate Kenneth Cates, Democratic candidate Natalie James, and Republican incumbent John Boozman. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122)

Agriculture and the struggles of Arkansas’ rural communities were top of mind for U.S. Senate candidates who participated in a debate hosted by Arkansas PBS Friday afternoon.

Agriculture is the state’s largest industry, adding about $16 billion to the state’s economy each year. However, farmers are struggling with higher costs this year. The war in Ukraine has driven up the cost of wheat, for example.

Because input costs are high right now, agriculture is “in pretty dire straits,” Republican Sen. John Boozman said. Federal subsidies would help provide farmers with stability, he said.

The incumbent is the lead Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and while working on the Farm Bill next year, he said he’ll work hard to ensure safety nets are in place so farmers can get the money they need to pay their loans.

It’s important for the federal government to subsidize Arkansas farmers because they provide food to people around the world, Democrat Natalie James said. They need to be inclusive and not competitive subsidies so that farmers can stay competitive in a global market, she said. 

Libertarian candidate Kenneth Cates. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate - 102122)
Libertarian candidate Kenneth Cates. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122)

Libertarian Kenneth Cates does not “agree with federal subsidies necessarily” and suggested deregulating the farming industry. The Environmental Protection Agency has a lot of restrictions in place and eliminating them could help farmers, Cates said. Those regulations are in place to protect the ground, water and air, all things that impact the quality of the crops farmers grow, James noted.

Arkansas is a rural state and many rural counties have declining populations. Cates said people are leaving because “there’s no opportunity.” Cates supports lowering taxes and recruiting businesses to the state to create more jobs.

James said it’s important to lower taxes for citizens and agreed rural areas are seeing a sharp decline in population because job opportunities have been removed. James said a living wage is important for allowing people to stay in their rural hometowns as well.

A declining population means a decline in federal dollars, which creates more problems when you already don’t have a lot of money to begin with, Boozman said. It’s important to protect rural schools and rural hospitals, because if you lose those, you lose your community, he said.

James said she’d like to see something done federally to address the lack of access to hospitals and health care in rural areas. 

Political experience

Boozman won the Republican primary in May with 58% of the vote. He defeated Jack Bequette, Heath Loftis and Jan Morgan. Boozman was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010. 

Natalie James is a realtor who defeated Jack Foster and Dan Whitfield in the Democratic primary with 54% of the vote. This is her first time seeking public office.

If elected, she would be the first Black candidate elected to represent Arkansas in Washington D.C. To date, only 11 African Americans have served in the U.S. Senate. 

Libertarian candidate Kenneth Cates served in the Marines and is now a firefighter and paramedic. A longtime Republican, Cates switched to the Libertarian Party after seeing the loss of liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, according to his website.

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Abortion

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Arkansas-based companies like Walmart and Tyson are expanding coverage for out-of-state abortions. On Thursday, the Pentagon announced it would provide travel funds to troops living in states where abortion is illegal.

Cates and Boozman both said they are pro-life and against the policy. Boozman said he is opposed to federal funds being used for these purposes because as “one of the most pro-life states in the country,” many Arkansans don’t want their taxpayer dollars used for abortions. 

While he doesn’t agree with Walmart and Tyson’s policies, Boozman said they are private companies so they can do what they want.

Democratic candidate Natalie James.  (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate - 102122)
Democratic candidate Natalie James.
(John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122)

James said it’s important for people to have adequate access to health care and abortion is health care.

“Abortion is an international human right,” she said. It’s not just the state’s right to tell us what to do with our bodies.”

Boozman said he does support exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. 

Crime

To alleviate crime, James said people need to be paid a fair and adequate wage, have access to health care and be provided with resources they need for education. Additionally, she said mental health issues should be addressed and there needs to be a recidivism program focused on the socialization aspect of re-entering society.

“A lot of this crime is from repeat offenders because we’re not training and coaching and motivating them to be citizens,” James said. “We are motivating them to continue to be career criminals and we shouldn’t be doing that.”

Boozman said crime is an issue that must be dealt with and there’s a big opportunity for the federal government to be helpful.

Republican U.S. Senator John Boozman.  (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate - 102122)
Republican U.S. Senator John Boozman.
(John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122)

In Congress, Boozman serves on a subcommittee that controls funding for initiatives like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, “a program that gives law enforcement the tools that they need to keep themselves, to keep us safe,” he said. These are the types of programs that need to be supported moving forward, Boozman said.

Cates agreed it’s important to support law enforcement officers.

“We fight crime by not demonizing the guys who fight it,” he said.

Immigration reform

With “thousands of illegal aliens” crossing the border, Cates said the Biden administration is not handling immigration well. Cates said he wants immigrants to have a better life, but the border needs to be secured, and officials should focus on immigration reform like work visas.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and was founded by people seeking shelter from religious persecution and taxes, James said. Today’s immigrants are refugees seeking asylum and help, she said.

“That’s the same thing that we did when we first came over here and the same rights should be allotted to anybody else that wants to come over here and be a citizen and be a productive citizen,” she said.

James agreed there needs to be reform and said there’s too much red tape hindering the immigration process. 

Boozman said it doesn’t matter what immigration system you put in place if you don’t secure the border because “people will continue to flood across, and it is a flood.”

“This is a national crisis and a national security issue,” Boozman said.

The Department of Homeland Security reported a record 2.4 million immigration encounters along the Mexican border this year as of September. 

With millions of people being stopped, James said “that sounds really secure” and like border security is working. 

There’s already millions of people in line working their way through the immigration system, Boozman said. While it will take most of them a decade to be naturalized, he said they’re doing it “the right way.”

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Education costs

All three candidates agreed something must be done to address the rising cost of higher education. 

“What we’ve got to do is get the university system under control in the sense that their inflation rate has been tremendously greater than the normal inflation rate,” Boozman said.

The Biden administration has announced a student loan forgiveness plan to help relieve debt, but Boozman opposes it because “it’s not fair.”

The student loan program is a step in the right direction that will help Arkansans, especially communities of color, James said.

Students can also try to deal with the high costs of education by earning scholarships, considering attending school close to home and exploring vocational options, all things James said she’s discussing with her own daughter.

“We push college, but college may not be for everybody,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re pushing all options that are for our children because not every kid’s the same.”

Cates agreed vocational education should be an option. He also opposes the student loan forgiveness program.

“The federal government paying for someone’s student loan is not free,” Cates said. “Somebody has to pay for it. The taxpayer does, so you’re just transferring debt from one person to another.” 

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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