On Friday night, I had the pleasure of moderating a candidate forum between Dr. Steve Richards and Tom Shaw, the two candidates vying for the Republican nomination in house district eight. Currently, the district is represented by 22 year incumbent Rep. Dolores Mertz, a conservative Democrat.
House district eight has a Democratic voter registration advantage. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republican 6,269 to 5,772, but as is the case in a lot of legislative districts, “no party” voters outnumber both political parties. House district eight has 8,396 no party voters. Despite the Democratic voter registration edge, John McCain defeated President Obama in the district. McCain received 7,641 votes compared to Obama’s 6,974 votes.
Dr. Richards, who ran against Rep. Mertz in 2008, came within 40 votes of defeating Mertz in 2008. At the forum on Friday night, Richard told the audience numerous times that he didn’t lose to Mertz, he lost to Obama. Like a lot of other legislative races, the Obama campaign and Iowa Democrats out-worked Republicans on early voting, meaning a lot of candidates like Richards won on Election Day, but ultimately lost their races.
The forum drew a crowd of 50-60 people who were willing to spend two hours on a Friday night peppering the candidates with questions. The crowd asked questions ranging from how to grow rural communities, second amendment rights, and who the candidates support for governor. One of the more lengthy discussions focused on people’s second amendment rights.
One of the attendees asked Richards why he received an “F” grade from the NRA. Richards said that he has contacted the NRA about his grade and is working with them to change it. He admitted that the “F” grade was the result of comments that he made refereeing that an AK-47 was an assault rifle. Richard’s then recounted his first-hand account of the 1987 Dreesman murders in Algona.
Richards was the medical examiner on the scene. It was obvious that what Richards saw that day left an indelible mark on his life. Robert Dressman killed both of his parents, his sister, and her three young children before talking his own life. A time magazine article about shooting described what happened.
Police and the Iowa division of criminal investigation quickly reconstructed what had happened. A few serving dishes had been passed, and the six family members were just beginning to eat when Robert appeared in the dining-room doorway, pointing a high-powered, semiautomatic rifle. Firing short bursts, he swung the rifle barrel right around the table. Nobody had time to move. They all died within 30 seconds. Then he stepped back into the hallway, picked up a shotgun he had left there, pushed the barrel up under his chin, and blew his brains out.
For a while on Friday night, second amendment issues dominated the forum. Dr. Richards said he supports a person’s right to bear arms for hunting and self defense, but he also thinks that people need to go through proper background checks before they are allowed a permit to carry a firearm in public. It was obvious that the Dressman killings, in which mental illness was a factor, has an ongoing impact on his position. Tom Shaw, on the other hand, simply took out a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his suit pocket and said that’s the only license he needs to carry a firearm.
The differences between Dr. Richards and Mr. Shaw go further than just the 2nd Amendment. The candidates were asked if they would support certifying non-nurse midwives. Richards asked probing questions about the proposed certification and training processes, while Shaw simply said he would support them because he objects to the government’s intrusion to people’s lives. When asked who they support for governor, Dr. Richards said Branstad, while Shaw was a Vander Plaats fan. I’m sure that if one had said that his favorite colors was white, the other would have surely answered black.
In determining which of the two candidates did the best, it depends what you are looking for. If you are looking for a candidate who will stick to their core convictions and adhere strictly to our founding documents for the most part, then Tom Shaw speaks your language. If you are looking for a candidate who has a deep understanding of economic development and health care issues, then Dr. Richards is probably your kind of candidate.
Following the forum, people were encouraged to participate in a straw poll. Each vote costs a dollar and you could vote for either Dr. Richards or Mr. Shaw. They also held a straw poll for the gubernatorial race. Shaw won the HD 8 straw poll 22 to 0 and Vander Plaats won the gubernatorial straw poll with 12 votes.
It was apparent before the event even started that the crowd was pro Shaw. Making matters worse for Richards was the fact that Shaw handed out a voter guide to everyone who attended that made some statements about where Richards stood on a number of issues. That made an already lopsided event even more contentious for Richards.
I think that Dr. Richards should be commended for being willing to participate in Friday’s forum. He wasn’t on his turf, and his opponent had the home field advantage. Many times, the questions asked were really only directed at Richards. Nevertheless, Richard dealt with the tough questions and answered everyone’s inquiries honestly, even when it was apparent it was not what they wanted to hear.
The primary in house district eight will be a spirited affair. With four months to go until the primary, there is a lot of campaigning to be done before the race can be called. Forums like the one on Friday night are helpful in providing the people of the district with an idea of where the candidates stand on issues. Not only do the people in Pocahontas know where the candidates stand on local issues like taxes, spending, gay marriage, and 2nd amendment rights, but they also know what their candidates think about President Obama’s healthcare proposal, cap and trade, and other issues.
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