JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., and Democratic challenger Donna Deegan squared off Wednesday evening in the only televised debate in the 4th Congressional District race.
News4Jax, in partnership with Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute, hosted the debate, which was moderated by Kent Justice. There was no live audience to adhere to social distancing protocols, and candidates were spaced apart.
The race for the 4th Congressional District, which covers Nassau and parts of Duval and St. Johns counties, pits Rutherford, a former Jacksonville sheriff who is running for reelection after first taking office in 2017, against Deegan, a former local TV news personality and breast cancer survivor who has gone on to raise awareness and funding for breast cancer research through her annual marathon.
During the debate, Deegan and Rutherford both touched on the coronavirus pandemic, health care, the economy and social justice.
The first topic addressed was the coronavirus pandemic. The candidates were asked what, if anything, they would do differently than the president and governor have done already. Both weighed in on President Donald Trump’s response.
“I would do just about everything differently,” Deegan said, pointing at the Trump administration’s response. “The whole idea was let’s get a plan, let’s ramp up the Defense Production Act, get PPE put in place, make sure that we have a plan for testing and tracing and isolation so that we can tamp down on problems. But, instead, what has happened is he has allowed this virus to run rampant."
Rutherford, however, said the president acted quickly, pointing to the China travel restrictions.
Deegan also said she would pass a bill that would help the American people get to the other side of the pandemic. Rutherford pointed out that he’s currently working with leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass an additional relief bill.
“There’s a bill ... on the speaker’s desk that she refuses to bring to the floor that would provide another $137 billion that individuals out there need of the PPP program. But they won’t bring it to the floor. We’re now working on a discharge petition to try and force that on the floor because the speaker simply does not want to give the president a win on this,” Rutherford said.
Replay: Watch the entire 4th Congressional District debate
Both candidates answered along party lines much of the night, with Deegan saying she does support the Affordable Care Act.
“What I would do is I would add a robust public option to that, then we create some competition -- Republicans usually think competition is good -- create some competition to start to bring those prices down and then we tell the drug companies, the pharmaceutical companies, that they have to negotiate for drug prices,” she said.
Rutherford then pushed back against the talking point that “Republicans do not support pre-existing condition coverage is just wrong.”
“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,” he said. “So I did not support the Affordable Care Act. And I’ll tell you why: In the last five years, it’s not affordable. If you’re a 27-year-old single individual, your premium has gone up 61%. If you’re a family of four, it’s gone up 71%. It is anything but affordable.”
The debate comes on the same week as Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings.
Deegan said she does not support Barrett’s nomination and called it hypocritical, pointing to Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge nominated in 2016 by President Barack Obama after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. But Republicans in the Senate refused to give Garland a hearing, citing the presidential election that was months away that year.
Rutherford said he does support the nomination, claiming the Democrats would do the same thing if they were in this position. Rutherford also said Trump is not trying to pack the court, but fulfill his constitutional duties.
When asked whether they would vote for legislation that would increase the size of the Supreme Court beyond nine members, Rutherford said he would not vote for legislation that would do that, while Deegan said she didn’t know how she would vote until she got to the House of Representatives.
Another issue that could make its way to the House in the new term is the potential for admitting new states. When asked if they would vote for statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, Deegan said she thinks she would, while Rutherford said absolutely not.
Photos: Go behind the scenes of the debate at Channel 4
In 2017, Trump and Congress passed tax cuts for all income brackets. The individual income tax cuts expire in 2025. Rutherford said he would vote to extend the tax cuts.
“In fact, we already voted to extend the $2,000 child tax credit. I think that’s important. Look, those tax cuts and the regulatory changes that were made actually helped to generate one of the greatest economies this country has ever seen," Rutherford said before pivoting back to the coronavirus and China.
“Pre-COVID, think back if you can remember back we had the lowest unemployment in every demographic you could think of. The GDP was growing over three points annually. It was an amazing economy. Then we had to shut down because of the COVID-19 that the Chinese just released upon us, and they are the ones that need to be held accountable for COVID-19. And, you know, my heart goes out to 214,000 families of loved ones who are no longer with us as a result of what China did. And I think we need to look at China in a new way. One thing that this pandemic has done is taking the mask off the Chinese Communist Party."
Deegan responded: “First, what we’ve taken the mask off of is the Republican Party apparently because they’re going all over the place, all over Florida to superspreader events and spreading this virus around. To say that this was China’s fault, OK. It started in China. I’m not going to get put that on the president, but the fact is that at this point, we have done nothing to control it.”
She then answered the question, saying she would vote to repeal the tax cuts.
“It helps primarily the top 1% and big corporations. Do you know we have 90 corporations in this country that pay zero in taxes? That is not right when this country has been the most successful when it has had the lowest debt. You know what we’ve done? We’ve invested in the middle class, and that’s what we have got to go back to doing.”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has announced a plan to increase taxes and raise nearly $4 trillion over the next decade. His tax increases include income tax increases for those making over $400,000, increasing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, increasing capital gains taxes to ordinary income for the higher income individual and other increases. Deegan said she would support that plan, while Rutherford said absolutely not.
The debate also included an exchange about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If you’re going to look at the organization, Google what they stand for. Look at Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors. They are self-avowed Marxists. That’s not me saying it. They said it. And they are the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement," Rutherford said.
Deegan said: “Let me tell you that local Black leaders have called that -- pardon my word -- asinine. They don’t believe that the Black Lives Matter movement -- you may have somebody in an organization that describes themselves in a certain way. Clearly, that is not what that movement is about. And I think the representative knows that. You know that that’s not what the movement is about today. People simply want racial justice.”
Watch: Rutherford & Deegan ask each other a question
To learn more about the candidates, visit News4Jax’s Voter’s Guide.