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Democratic Primary Hopefuls Square Off On Healthcare, Party Direction

Matt Goins/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP
Democratic candidates for U. S. Congress Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, left, Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Ky, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray debate at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

The three top-tier Democrats vying for a chance to unseat incumbent 6th District Congressman Andy Barr made their pitch directly to voters in an hour-long televised debate Wednesday night.

Listen to the full debate.

All three hopefuls mentioned healthcare in their opening remarks, but state Sen. Reggie Thomas was alone in calling for a Medicare-for-all-style universal healthcare. The Lexington Democrat maintained the system has already proven itself in the United States with initiatives like CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

"It works here in America now," he told the audience at Transylvania University. "I want to extend that to everyone."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath took a more cautious tack, promising to keep and bolster Obama-era health reforms.

"We don't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to improve the Affordable Care Act," Gray advised, throwing his support behind tax credits designed to ease the burden of ever-rising healthcare premiums on middle-class families.

Listen to more coverage from WUKY.

McGrath said she wants to resurrect an idea debated during the passage of the 2010 health law.

"While I believe that the single-payer is a good system for many countries, here in America I think we need to be practical," the combat veteran said, endorsing a public option allowing residents to join a government-administered insurance plan and a Medicare buy-in program.

Gun control reforms often labeled "common sense" by Democrats, including universal background checks and a ban on bump stocks, won general agreement from the trio. The candidates also found themselves occupying similar common ground on a $15 minimum wage, allowing students to refinance student loans, and undoing partisan gridlock in D.C.

But differences emerged over what constitutes a "change" candidate.

Asked whom they cast ballots for in the 2016 presidential race, all three answered Hillary Clinton. Yet McGrath broke from formation, commenting that she might reconsider that vote, if she could. Later the political neophyte argued Capitol Hill needs new blood.

"Who is going to be the one who gets in there and is a change agent, who did not grow up within a political party, who is not a pawn of their political party?" she asked.

Joining McGrath, Thomas said it’s time for the party to branch back out into rural areas and reclaim the heartland – or suffer the consequences.

"At the end of the day, this is not about who you voted for in 2016, but what lessons can we learn from that" the senator warned. "Because if we don't learn those lessons... then we're going to lose again in 2018 and 2020."

Quizzed on his abilities to win a "change election", Gray said voters pay attention to candidates’ records.

"They think about these decisions," he answered. "They look at experience. They look at results and they look at performance."

Attendees exiting the debate sounded unfazed by the prospect of a potential establishment versus newcomer split, however. Lexington voters Theodore Berry and Heather Wright mostly liked what they heard from the candidates.

"I don't know whether there's a real establishment candidate in this primary," Berry said. "Youb have some that have been more involved than others."

"All three candidates have excellent candidates have excellent backgrounds to them that could bring something to the plate," Wright observed.     

Three other names will appear on the Democratic primary ballot in May: Theodore Green, Daniel Kemph, and Geoff Young.

A spokesman for Barr dismissed the debate, saying the lawmaker is "not focused on the divisive and increasingly expensive Democrat primary, but rather on representing his constituents in the 6th Congressional District by passing historic tax reform, advocating for the district's equine and bourbon industries and securing vital funding to combat the opioid epidemic."

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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