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With the race for Missouri's District 4 U.S. representative down to three candidates, those on the ballot have shared their thoughts on a pair of issues that have dominated the national consciousness for much of the year — the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the issue of police and criminal justice reform.
Incumbent Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville; Lindsey Simmons, D-Marshall; and Steven Koonse, L-Leeton, also outlined some key issues they plan to focus on looking beyond 2020.
Hartzler, a former public school teacher, small business owner and lifelong farmer, was first elected to her current seat in 2010. She began her public service in 1994, serving six years in the Missouri House of Representatives. She defeated challenger Neal Gist in the August primary election.
Simmons ran unopposed in the primary election. She seeks public office for the first time, having graduated from Harvard Law School and since spent her time working as an attorney representing indigent clients and raising a child with her husband, Chris, an Apache helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army.
Koonse defeated Robert Smith in the primary election. He was raised on a farm near Pilot Grove and has a military background, having served five tours in Vietnam and retired as an Army master sergeant. Koonse has worked in the private industry as an accountant, auditor and financial examiner.
Total coronavirus cases in Missouri since the start of the pandemic, as of about a week into October, number at nearly 150,000, and a number of rural counties in District 4 were classified as COVID-19 "red zones" in late September.
Simmons said a much more hands-on approach is necessary to protect Missourians as the pandemic continues.
"The mismanagement of the public health crisis is what caused our economic crisis," Simmons said. "We will be unable to restart our economy until we stop this virus."
Simmons said she is in favor of mandatory mask ordinances and limited caps on capacity at gatherings in red and yellow zone counties, as well as widespread testing available to any who asks for one and is experiencing symptoms or has been potentially exposed to COVID-19.
Simmons also said the state needs more funding for personal protective equipment for frontline workers and must provide additional assistance to working families in a number of forms — an additional stimulus check, eviction moratoriums, public school funding, small business assistance, unemployment expansion and health insurance protection.
Hartzler focused more on what steps have been taken by Congress to provide assistance during the pandemic thus far.
"This novel virus has challenged health and government officials, business owners, workers, school administrators and families across our country," Hartzler said. "As more information has been gleaned about this virus, protocols have shifted, creating a fluid situation."
She pointed to the passage of legislative packages to address the health and economic challenges brought on by the pandemic and initiatives underway to reduce reliance on foreign pharmaceutical sources in favor of American-made medical products and the ongoing development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
Hartzler said now that Missouri's economy is reopened and funding from Congress' legislative packages has been disbursed among state and local governments, there's a better understanding of which counties and industries will need additional assistance moving forward, something she said should be a principal focus in any further talks about relief packages.
Koonse said he is in favor of continuing to follow public health guidance such as what has been shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — wearing masks, sanitizing hands and common areas after public exposure, social distancing, and avoiding contact with those who are more susceptible to more severe symptoms, such as the elderly.
However, Koonse said social distancing at events such as funerals should be more lax. He thinks the importance of such events outweighs the risk posed by the virus.
"I considered the risk and the effects of a contagion to be of lesser importance than comforting the bereaved and showing respect to my deceased friend, neighbor or relative," Koonse said.
In regard to law enforcement reform, Hartzler said we need to ensure rogue bad actors are removed from police forces and adequate training is provided so every law enforcement officer is fully equipped to respond to all situations with professionalism.
However, while Hartzler said lawmakers can and should do better to work together to overcome their differences and ensure all perspectives are heard and respected, she called the idea of defunding the police "absurd" and said it would result in communities that are less safe.
"The vast majority of our law enforcement officers do an amazing job protecting our communities," Hartzler said. "They put their lives on the line every day, making personal sacrifices so others can be safe. We owe them our appreciation and respect."
Simmons pointed to a wrongful incarceration case she saw through before leaving her firm to run for office as an example of the needed reform in American law enforcement.
"The police detective who hid exculpatory evidence, who coerced witnesses and threatened the sole-testifying eyewitness that he'd take her children away if she did not testify as he demanded — he walks free, with a pension," Simmons said. "We must end qualified immunity."
Simmons said she also supports ending mandatory minimums, chokeholds by officers, no-knock warrants and the militarization of police departments.
Koonse said he is also against cutting funding for the police. He said he supports police officers' use of necessary force to bring perpetrators to justice and avoid harm to the officer, and training to that end to enable understanding of at what point a situation has been resolved to the point where no further aggression is needed.
Koonse said officers should only accept assistance from authorized helpers in confrontational situations.
"The police officers should make unauthorized actors to understand that they are not authorized to assist and to stand down," Koonse said.
Looking beyond the calendar year, the candidates pointed to differing areas of focus moving forward.
Simmons said the pandemic has exacerbated weaknesses that already existed in Missouri communities — struggling hospitals, crumbling infrastructure, schools lacking in resources. She said Missouri needs a true plan to bring genuine investments to rural Missouri in the form of public/private partnerships, community grant programs, education incentives and infrastructure investments.
"We don't just need a COVID-19 recovery plan — we need a 21st century recovery plan," she said. "That will be my focus on day one and all the days after."
Hartzler said her focus will lie in getting tougher on China, making more faith-based organizations available to veterans suffering from PTSD, and expanding rural broadband.
Other priorities for Hartzler include keeping Americans safe by rebuilding national defense, growing the economy, reforming health care to make it more accessible and affordable, and protecting life and foundational rights such as those included in the First and Second Amendments.
Koonse said a key issue for him would be changing the Federal Reserve's independent status on valuing and appropriating money and making it an advisory body to Congress.