Smith, Lewis spar on many fronts in Duluth debate
The two U.S. Senate candidates found little common ground on how the nation should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, climate change or police reform.
No shortage of opposing views emerged Friday morning, as Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith and Jason Lewis, a former U.S. representative now vying for her seat, took part in an online forum sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and the News Tribune.
On the issue of how best to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis accused Smith and her fellow Democrats of fomenting harmful fear, while she said her opponent continues to downplay the seriousness of the deadly outbreak.
"This overreaching lockdown ... needs to be lifted and lifted now," Lewis said.
"This is the first time we've ever shut down a whole country or an economy over a public health challenge," he said, noting that the H1N1 flu infected 60 million people in the U.S., whereas just under 7 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 so far.
But Smith noted that the number of Americans dying daily due to COVID-19 is approaching 1,000. Meanwhile, the H1N1 flu claimed just shy of 12,500 lives in the U.S. from 2009 to 2010.
"This has been such a challenge to so many people in our state and our country. And I believe that the path back to economic strength is a path through protecting our public health," she said.
"There's a fundamental difference here between the senator and myself," Lewis said. "She's for continued lockdowns. I'm for letting the American people act as adults. Take recommendations; if you want to wear a mask or you want to stay home, or you want to socially distance, you should. But do it. You shouldn't tell that to the rest of the people in the state."
Smith took issue with Lewis' characterization of the situation, saying: "Of course, nobody wants this economy to be locked down, and the fact that he would say that I want this economy to be locked down, that I am making this economy be locked down, is frankly insulting and not that surprising coming from him."
Economy and climate change
When it comes to reviving the economy, Lewis stressed the importance of allowing projects such as pipelines and copper-nickel mines to be developed. He said copper-nickel mining could bring 15,000 direct and indirect jobs to the region.
"You're talking about, as I say, a renaissance for the Range and the ports and rail and all of the Iron Range and their way of life," he said.
Lewis also said Enbridge's proposed pipeline project would bring a $2 billion investment and another 8,600 jobs to the region.
"This is the proverbial no-brainer," he said, but suggested that Smith would work to block needed permits for such projects.
Smith accused Lewis of taking a "my way or the highway" approach to the situation that neglects to consider all sides of each issue.
"I think that in this moment, it is so important that we follow the facts and the science and the law, and keep politics out of it, and that's what I have always done. You've never heard me say that I am hard and fast against one thing or another," she said. "I'm in favor of making sure we make good decisions, balancing the economic and all of the interests of people in the North Country."
Lewis suggested his opponent's desire to aggressively address the perceived threat of global warming by shifting rapidly away from fossil fuels could also further endanger the Northland's economy.
"But I am not going to sacrifice the Iron Range and industrial jobs and reliance on fossil fuels at Enbridge for 'the Green New Deal.' Those jobs come first," he said. "We can do both. We can mitigate the modest changes without destroying the economy, like the Paris plan was going to do, and like their plans would do."
In response, Smith said: "I'm talking about finding opportunities for us to address the changing climate in ways that create opportunities, create jobs here in Minnesota and all over the country. I want to see us with a manufacturing strategy here in Minnesota that is moving forward, being at the forefront of a clean energy future and creating jobs here in America and in Minnesota. That's what we can do. But not if we just ignore it and sort of bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it's not happening."
Lewis interjected: "There's a cost to these things, senator, and you're not talking about the cost."
Smith responded: "I'm talking about the opportunity, and I think if we focus on the opportunity, we'll figure out how we can create jobs and create opportunity and that's what this is all about."
"And that's why environmentalists are opposed to Enbridge," Smith said.
Regarding recent calls for reform after a number of high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police, Smith spoke in favor of those efforts.
"I think there are common-sense things we can do to improve policing and improve public safety in this country. And I start with legislation that I've been strongly supporting in the United States Senate: Let's ban chokeholds. Let's ban these no-knock warrants that resulted in the killing, the murder of Breonna Taylor in her very own bed. Let's figure out a way — we know the way — to hold police officers accountable when they use excessive force and they violate people's civil rights," she said.
Smith also suggested police could be paired with social workers or other professionals to address situations that require a mental health response rather than a forceful presence.
Lewis called the notion of defunding police or replacing officers with social workers "ridiculous."
"Who are you going to call when someone's robbing you? Dr. Phil?" he asked.
Contrary to her opponent's accusations, Smith said she's not in favor of defunding police departments.
"Once again, the former congressman is trying to scare people. He's trying to confuse the issue. And I just want to be really clear," she said. "I think we can improve the way policing and law enforcement and the way public safety happens in our country. I don't think we should be afraid to look at what we could do better."
Lewis took issue with Smith, saying: "The fact is the police feel they're being undercut. I'm going to back the blue, and I don't think they're going to get the same — well, they haven't gotten the same — level of support from the Minneapolis City Council, (Rep.) Ilhan Omar and, in my view, Tina Smith."