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The race for Missouri's House of Representatives District 50 seat is down to two candidates.
Incumbent Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, and challenger Kari Chesney, D-Columbia, shared their policy goals and areas of focus ahead of November's election. Among them were the topics of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and criminal justice.
Walsh was first elected to her current seat in a special election in August 2017. She has previously held a number of roles prior to her time in public office, from working as a staff auditor for the Missouri State Auditor's Office and legislative assistant for the Missouri House of Representatives to being a quality control inspector for Maytag and a deli worker at Moser's Foods in Holts Summit.
Chesney currently works as a veterinarian and research scientist at the University of Missouri, where she received her doctorate of veterinary medicine in 2015 and a Ph.D. in comparative medicine in 2020.
Both candidates ran unopposed in the August primary election.
Walsh said investing in education, protecting small business, supporting public safety, demanding accountability, and fighting for life and liberty have been her main priorities.
Specifically, she said, there are a number of pieces of legislation she hopes to get across the finish line in the Legislature's next session: finding a fix to the unintended consequences of "Nathan's Law" regarding in-home licensed child care facilities, reintroducing legislation to allow the city of Ashland to put a lodging tax on the ballot, continuing to ensure funding for Missouri Task Force 1, and re-filing legislation that would make knowingly directing the light of a laser pointer at a uniformed safety officer a Class A misdemeanor.
Chesney said one of the most important areas of policy focus in her campaign is agriculture.
"We have seen a record number of family farms shut down in the past several years — partly due to unstable weather causing massive drought one year and severe floods the next, and partly due to massive takeover of Missouri farmland by coastal and international agribusiness," Chesney said.
She said Missouri needs to provide a means for its farms to compete with these groups — potentially through cooperatives and larger buying power — and to address the inevitable pollution and loss of property values as a result of corporate factory farms (CAFOs) moving into the area. Chesney said she was opposed to Senate Bill 391 and thinks local control should not be taken away when it comes to matters of their environment.
Chesney also said she would focus on education policy, with an emphasis on increasing teacher salaries and restoring vital resources and time spent in school omitted when Missouri legislators fully funded the state's public schools several years ago.
In regards to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, both candidates acknowledge work will continue into next year.
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Walsh said, as a member of the House Budget Committee, she will soon begin the process of hearing testimony from state departments regarding their response to the pandemic. She said she plans to work with her colleagues to consider the state department's budget requests, as well as what did and didn't work in the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she will support any legislation that may be needed to better clarify or remove current state statutes or enact new ones.
"I supported the appropriation of a substantial amount of federal and state dollars to assist Missourians impacted by COVID-19," Walsh said of her work in the House during this year as the pandemic spread.
She said her office has worked with many constituents from District 50 to help them navigate their state government, access grants and receive assistance.
Chesney said the pandemic has laid bare the failings in Missouri's public health funding and disaster preparedness and that the state needs to reevaluate the public health budget next session to ensure it has the means to protect its citizens.
She also said elected officials should be doing more to look out for their constituents.
"The very least our elected officials could do is lead by example: wear masks, cancel in-person events and practice social distancing," Chesney said. "Many of them have been reluctant or opposed to these actions. These are all proven methods to reduce (COVID-19) risk and numbers."
In regards to criminal justice reform, Walsh said she serves on a pair of House committees that led to her being actively engaged in studying and enacting policies, programs and funding with regards to public safety.
"I am most passionate about public safety because in order to have a well-functioning civil society, peace must be maintained," Walsh said. "Life and property rights must be upheld. People want to live, work and play in safe neighborhoods."
She said well-funded, trained members of law enforcement are essential to help maintain law and order and in keeping the peace, defending Missourians' freedoms and upholding the incentive to live, work or do business in a community.
Chesney, from her perspective, said crime is a symptom of much larger policy failings in the government; she said most individuals commit crimes due to some unfulfilled need.
"Slapping a Band-Aid on crime by mandating harsher punishments or longer minimum sentences will do nothing to stem the tide of crime in our state," Chesney said.
She said Missouri lacks equity, as well as resources, for mental health, homelessness and veterans' services, and the root causes of people's pain must be fixed before crime will decrease.
Chesney also said the state's criminal justice system needs critique; though police officers provide a vital service to their communities, they've been burdened with taking on the additional roles of mental health professional and guidance counselor in their day-to-day job. She said pairing social workers with police officers would help to fulfill the full array of distress and emergency needs.
"We need to expand funding to our police departments and make sure they are fully staffed, but we also need to reimagine what it means to be a first responder in these departments," Chesney said.