Senate debate: Amid technical glitches, candidates differ on racial issues

A U.S. Senate debate on KCCI-TV was held Oct. 15 with moderators on set and both candidates appearing remotely. (Screen shot from KCCI livestream)

The last Senate debate between U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield was marred by technical difficulties, chopped-up answers and candidates unable to hear questions.

Less than a month before the general election, Ernst and Greenfield debated from remote locations as they tried to sway voters in one of the country’s most competitive Senate races. Ernst, who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke from Washington, D.C., while she participates in Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings.

Greenfield spoke from Altoona at the Carpenters Local 106 Training Institute.

Several times during the debate, both candidates were unable to hear the moderators’ questions and their responses were accidentally cut off.

“I’m sorry, you are breaking up,” Ernst said to moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel after she was asked about Barrett’s confirmation. “If you could maybe try to repeat the question, but I do think we have a glitch with the connection.”

Following a break, the technical difficulties mostly cleared up.

Black Lives Matter protests and addressing white privilege

A significant portion of the debate was dedicated to the candidates’ policy stances on how to create more equitable systems for Black and non-white communities.

Ernst and Greenfield were asked how they would create more equitable economic opportunities for non-white communities during the recovery.

Job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic have particularly hurt people of color. While half of the employment lost between February and April have recovered, Hispanic, Black, and Asian-Americans are enduring a slower recovery, according to a Washington Post analysis.

One part of the issue is that non-white populations are more likely to work low-wage jobs, which suffered the hardest during the pandemic, according to the Washington Post.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, appears remotely from Washington, D.C., for a televised debate on KCCI-TV. (Screen shot from event livestream)

Ernst said she supports allowing Pell Grants for incarcerated people, so they can afford a college education and improve their career opportunities. She also said that in 2017, she supported the Fair Chance Act, which would prohibit federal employers and contractors from asking a job applicant about his or her criminal history until the final stages of the interview process.

Greenfield said providing equitable economic opportunities involves looking at the system as a whole, such as improving housing, lending and health care for non-white people. She also said she supports extending the $600 weekly unemployment benefits and giving families another round of direct relief.

“We have to address all of the racism throughout all of our systems,” Greenfield said.

Ernst and Greenfield disagreed about the severity of racism in the U.S. and its influence on opportunities.

Rheya Spigner, an anchor at KCCI, asked the candidates if they believe systemic racism exists. Systemic racism is the concept that non-white people are at a disadvantage because of unequal institutions and processes, such as banks offering fewer loans to Black people than white people, despite similar financial conditions.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield appears remotely for a televised debate on KCCI-TV. (Screen shot from event livestream)

Greenfield said she believes systemic racism is real, while Ernst said she does not believe there is an institutional issue and instead, she said there are individual people who are racist.

“I do think you will find racist individuals in those systems, but I don’t think entire systems of people are racist,” Ernst said.

Both candidates also differed on whether or not they benefit from white privilege. White privilege is the concept that white people have societal benefits that non-white people do not have, due to the color of their skin.

While Ernst said she’s unsure if she’s benefited from white privilege, Greenfield said she did after her first husband died. She received financial assistance from Social Security after his death, but Greenfield said she’s unsure if that would have occurred if she was Black.

Beyond Social Security, Greenfield said she wants to address health care and study why Black women have a higher maternal death rate than their white peers.

“We have to look at why that’s happening,” Greenfield said.

Both Ernst and Greenfield said they do not support defunding the police. Black Lives Matter protesters have called on cities and states to decrease funding dedicated to law enforcement, and instead, redistribute it to community programs, such as mental health services and drug rehabilitation.

They both also said they support the Black Lives Matter protests, but they do not support the burglaries or damage that occurred during the protests.

Greenfield said she believes the majority of protests were non-violent in Iowa.

”Looting, damaging property isn’t part of protesting,” Greenfield said. “I don’t like to see the damage to our storefronts and our properties.”

Ernst said she supported the initial protests, but property damage eventually distracted the demands for justice after the death of George Floyd.

 “I think it really smeared those trying to do good through protests,” Ernst said. “You can’t hear those peaceful protesters through the sounds of shattering glass and splintering wood.”