Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, Republican Jake LaTurner and Libertarian Robert Garrard are competing to represent Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Leavenworth through Topeka down to Pittsburg.
De La Isla and Garrard sat down with The Topeka Capital-Journal for its election podcast series to talk about key issues. Attempts to interview LaTurner were unsuccessful.
De La Isla has served as mayor since 2018, and prior to that, was a city councilwoman. She said her experience in local office will prove well for Congress.
"When you're a mayor, you're dealing with issues that are not Republican or Democrat," she said. "In order for you to be able to accomplish anything, you need to have relationships across party lines. That's what I've been doing in Topeka for the past almost eight years."
Garrard, on the other hand, is an electronics technician from Douglas County. But it isn’t his first time running, despite knowing how difficult it is for third-party candidates to win.
"You should vote for what you believe in. If you agree with the Democrat 40% and the Republican 60% and the Libertarian 80%, then why vote for somebody that you agree with less?" he said. "We need people that think like us to vote for us and support us to make some progress."
De La Isla said she believes in helping out small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. She said mayors had pushed in the first COVID-19 relief package for money to come directly to municipalities so small businesses and local governments could work together.
"The reality is that there is a high likelihood that in quarter four, the businesses that were not able to reopen are not going to come back," she said.
But she also stressed supporting families affected economically by the pandemic.
A critical concern in the next relief package in play in Congress has been the amount to give for unemployment benefits, with Republicans stressing that giving too much would disincentivize going back to work.
De La Isla said she understands those concerns but thinks most families don’t want to sit down and just not work, but would rather be productive.
"I think that the issue that it speaks to is that if what the federal government considers a basic amount of distribution for family ends up being more than what families are paid, that's a problem," she said. "The problem is what we consider to be a living wage."
Garrard stressed an entirely hands-off approach from the government.
"I don't think there's much the federal government can do," he said. "I think it's the companies that make vaccines and drugs, and local governments to do what they need to do in their particular situation."
One thing the federal government could have done, Garrard added, was stock up on masks before the pandemic hit. He noted that if the situation were biological warfare, the U.S. side would be losing pretty badly.
De La Isla blamed other things that the federal government could have done better, bringing up how the U.S. responded to Ebola.
"That's a great example on how you deal with a pandemic, that we know that as a clear and present danger, you don't minimize it," she said. "The fact that this pandemic has been minimized and there has been so much confusion with regards to the fact that this is a medical issue ... is another big problem that has created havoc in many of our communities."
The communities the candidates are seeking to represent are not just cities like Topeka but swaths of rural areas as well.
When asked what she would do to help those areas, De La Isla said she would push for Medicaid and broadband expansion. She also criticized how President Donald Trump has handled the U.S.-China trade war that has affected farmers.
"Before we actually decided to enter into (a trade deal), we started imposing tariffs. We never diversified the strings of negotiations that we could have had," she said.
De La Isla also disagreed with Trump’s massive bailout to farmers hurt by the trade war.
"I don't know a farmer that wants to just stay home and just get money. Our farmers have a spirit of entrepreneurship," she said.
Garrard also was not a fan of the president’s trade war with China, saying it was getting in the way of a free market.
"If I make a product and sell it to somebody in China, I think of it as between me and that individual," Garrard said. "I hate the Chinese government, but to have our government get between a relationship between two people, I don't think that's good."
But Garrard offered nothing to support rural areas, saying one should leave it up to the free market to decide things. But what if the free market determined that suburban and urban areas outcompete rural areas left in the dust? That’s just the way it is, he said.
"Yeah, pretty much. I don't think that necessarily would happen if we had a free market," he said. "I mean, we don't, right now."
The issue of race and policing has been a huge topic in 2020 and also in this campaign trail, with LaTurner accusing De La Isla of wanting to defund the police. The mayor has said that is false.
In the podcast, De La Isla said real fundamental change on this issue will have to come from the local level, as well as the desire of everyday folks to come together and have conversations on it. But on the congressional level, she brought up the idea of more transparency to increase trust and the importance of police working with mental health professionals.
"So I think that those are some of the things that we should be looking towards (and) supporting our police department, so that they are able to do a more holistic job as they're trying to protect us and keep us safe," she said.
Garrard said he believes the policing debate should be treated on a case-by-case basis and that police chiefs need to get rid of officers who are too quick to use violence. If in Congress, he said, legalizing marijuana would help.
"That would greatly reduce interactions and negative interactions between people and police," he said. "Doesn't make sense. I can get stopped for taillight being out and have five cases of whiskey in the backseat, and it's no problem."
Ultimately, De La Isla said, whatever positions people hold, people need to remember the humanity in each other.
"Just be kind," she said. "And in the end, learn to have difficult conversations with your neighbor on why they believe what they believe."