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Who’s right? Checking claims from the Donna Deegan, John Rutherford debate

Fact-checking the Rutherford-Deegan debate
Fact-checking the Rutherford-Deegan debate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s the quandary most of us find ourselves in after listening to both sides of most political debates -- both sides make good points, but seemingly based on different sets of facts.

Wednesday night’s debate of the candidates for Congressional District 4 -- all of Nassau County and most of Duval and St. Johns counties -- was no different.

We ran a few of the issues where Republican U.S. Rep. John Rutherford and challenger Donna Deegan raised through our Trust Index and found, like most things, there’s truth on both sides.

Both promise coverage for pre-existing conditions. Can that be true?

After Deegan expressed her strong support of the Affordable Care Act -- known as Obamacare -- that and suggested adding a public auction to make it better, Rutherford gave reasons he has consistently voted to repeal and replace it.

Rutherford cited the steep increases in premiums over the last four years, then he pushed back against the standard Democratic talking point claiming that "Republicans do not support pre-existing condition coverage is just wrong.”

He said he’s co-sponsored two bills that, “should the ACA be struck down by the Supreme Court ... would require that pre-existing conditions still be covered.”

“I’m co-sponsoring two bills in the House. One which would amend the HIPAA law to make sure that pre-existing conditions are always covered. The other bill ... is actually a bill that should the ACA be struck down by the Supreme Court, that it would require that pre-existing conditions still be covered,” Rutherford said.

Later in the debate, Deegan pressed him to outline how the Republicans plan to do that in the absence of Obamacare, and at what cost, Rutherford said it involves a “high-risk pool” that would weigh the difference between people with pre-existing conditions and the “community rate," claiming this would bring down rates for everyone.

“High-risk pools is what we used to do. We’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. It explodes costs and it puts a ceiling on what insurance companies are willing to pay," Deegan shot back.

Consumer Reports looked into using high-risk pools and found they must be created by each state and, even if they existed everywhere, could ultimately leave millions of consumers uninsured.

“High-risk pools have a long track record of failure and have historically resulted in very high premiums and onerous terms for the coverage that don’t provide the care consumers need," Consumer Reports wrote. "As estimates show that more than a quarter of all non-elderly consumers have pre-existing conditions that could cause difficulties in obtaining coverage, this option could have serious consequences for millions of Americans.”

As far as the premiums going up, “you know why?" she said. “From the moment the ACA passed, the Republicans have been trying to kill it. The president decided to stop paying subsidies that were promised to insurance companies, he stopped advertising to let people know the times for sign up were available. He stopped helping people navigate the system. There are so many things he did that have caused previous to go up and up and up and up.”

Is John Rutherford one of the most bipartisan lawmakers?

In his opening remarks, Rutherford said during his time in office he has been “very proud to work across the aisle in a bipartisan way with members of the other side.”

How true is his claim that he has been bipartisan during his time as a lawmaker?

Well, according to a study by The Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy in 2019, the Republican had one of the highest scores on the Bipartisan Index, a “non-partisan ranking of how often each Member of Congress works across party lines.”

Out of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rutherford ranks 41st on the Bipartisan Index, a fact that he touts on his website and in campaign commercials.

The Bipartisan Index measures the frequency with which a member co-sponsors a bill introduced by the opposite party and the frequency with which a Member’s own bills attract co-sponsors from the opposite party, according to The Lugar Center.

During the debate, Deegan addressed Rutherford’s assertion that he has worked with both sides of the aisle as a member of the House.

“He talks about being bipartisan, but in addition to the fact that he votes with his party and with the president 98% of the time, you know, all I hear out of his mouth is the Democrats are socialist or communist or Marxist, I don’t know how bipartisan that is,” Deegan said.

Deegan was likely referencing the work of FiveThirtyEight, a political website that tracks the voting history of all members of Congress.

According to the site, Rutherford votes in line with Trump’s position 97.7% of the time.

News4Jax was unable to find an instance of Rutherford calling Deegan a socialist or a communist, but Tim Baker, who is running Rutherford’s campaign, told Florida Politics in August that voters have a choice between Rutherford, a “bipartisan problem solver,” and Deegan a “radical liberal who supports extremist politicians and ideology.”

“Everybody who has known me forever knows that there is absolutely nothing radical about me, and yet that is meant as a scare tactic,” Deegan said during the debate.

Are most people shot by police officers white?

The candidates were asked by News4Jax moderator Kent Justice if they believe there is institutional racism today at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and police departments across the country.

As part of his response, Rutherford, who was Jacksonville’s Sheriff for 12 years, said he rejects the narrative that America is a racist country and said that there needs to be an effort to start collecting and sharing better numbers on police shootings.

“Police shoot about somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people a year, and that is a horrible, horrible number, but about 235 of those are African American. The rest are White,” Rutherford said. “So, I do not think that those numbers indicate that there is a systemic racist attitude among law enforcement.”

Let’s take a look at the facts.

According to the Washington Post, which tracks every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States, there have been 1,002 people shot and killed by police in the past year, which roughly matches Rutherford’s claim.

While more White Americans have been shot and killed by police since The Post began tracking the shootings in 2015, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate.

“[Black people] account for less than 13% of the U.S. population but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate,” according to The Post’s analysis.

Florida has had 377 police shootings since 2015 and there have been more than 5,000 police shootings nationwide during the same span, according to the database. The Post’s data uses its own reporting, other news accounts, social media postings and police reports.

Deegan said that Rutherford has blinders on when it comes to the issue.

“Police, by and large, are good people,” Deegan responded. “I think they’re trying to do their jobs. Even if the bias is implicit, in some cases it is there, and we shouldn’t be asked to choose between wanting our police officers to be safe when they go out to do their jobs and wanting our citizens to have equal respect regardless of whether they’re black and white. It is very clear that that’s not what is happening in this country and I think the George Floyd incident, truly opened the eyes of so many people in this country.”

In all three cases, both candidates used accurate information but used it to make points that weren’t as clear as they made them out to be.

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