Jess King, Rep. Lloyd Smucker clash over campaign finances at first debate

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

In the 11th District candidates' first and potentially only debate before the November election, Democratic challenger Jess King made sure to put her opponent's campaign finances center stage.

The 90-minute debate between King and first-term Republican incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker took place Monday, Oct. 8, at Millersville University's Winter Visual & Performing Arts Center in Millersville, Lancaster County.

It was sponsored by the Lancaster Chamber of Business and Industry and LNP Media Group, and it occurred nearly three weeks after the district's most recent poll showed Smucker leading King by 9 points.

During the debate, the candidates drew a stark contrast between their platforms — and their debate strategies.

Smucker immediately came out on the offensive, calling King a "socialist" in his opening statement and claiming that her ideas threaten the American dream.

Pennsylvania 11th House District candidate Jess King and incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker debate at the Millersville University Winter Visual and Performing Arts Center, Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

King confronted Smucker on his rhetoric and responded, "Throwing smears at people is very disingenuous."

Audience members seeming to support the Democratic challenger cheered on King while booing and laughing at Smucker, at times heckling the Republican representative.

Campaign financing: King made one prominent critique of Smucker's campaign and political record known: She said his policies and many of the Republican Party's decisions are dependent on funding from political action committees and other special interest groups.

She directly addressed Smucker's interests when speaking about gun reform and the National Rifle Association.

"Ninety-five percent of us believe in comprehensive background checks," King said. "The only reason we're not moving that ahead is the power of the corporate gun lobby over the political process."

Smucker, who agreed that such background checks are important but hasn't signed onto any legislation, has received more than $200,000 from the NRA, ranking him seventh in donations from the organization in Congress, according to a New York Times report last year.

King also later pushed him on donations from PACs in general, claiming such organizations are where his interests lie rather than the voters themselves.

But Smucker said he was content with his support regardless of where it comes from.

"I am very proud to have strong support from individuals across this district, businesses, entrepreneurs and those who have interests in this district as well," Smucker said.

PAC money: Smucker has raised more than $1 million so far in the campaign, 31 percent of which came from individuals, with the remaining money coming from political action committees and other entities, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

King, who refuses corporate PAC money, has raised more than $780,000, 98 percent of which came from individuals.

Pennsylvania 11th District candidate Jess King and incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker debate at the Millersville University Winter Visual and Performing Arts Center, Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Smucker quickly deflected and pointed out King pays herself a salary out of her campaign funds, but she said it was necessary to do so while working a full-time campaign and running against wealthy incumbents.

King's campaign pays her roughly $3,800 per month, according to the FEC, which translates to $45,600 annually, less than one-third of the average salary of a member of Congress.

The remainder of the night was mostly spent addressing hot-button issues such as health care, immigration and climate change, but King refused to drop the conversation about special interests.

Health care: In regard to health care, King, a large proponent of Medicare for all, said private insurance companies would continue a trend that fails to cover millions of people who can't afford health care.

"You shouldn't go bankrupt if you get sick," King said. "We're choosing a system that doesn't work. We're leaving millions of people at the curb."

But Smucker recited a sentiment he long has held: It's necessary to make health care a competitive, free market, avoiding influence from the government.

He also said King's policies would be too costly, citing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' health care plan, which would increase federal spending by $32.6 trillion but also possibly save $2 trillion by lowering administrative and drug costs.

"What Ms. King is proposing would double your taxes over the next 10 years," he said. "It just simply does not work."

King echoed her talking points about the NRA's political influence, adding there hasn't been movement on universal health care because of the influence of pharmaceutical and insurance companies who "profit off the current system." 

Supporters of Jess King cheer as the candidate for the 11th District is introduced for a debate with incumbent Rep. Lloyd Smucker,  Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Climate change: King once again attacked corporations' influences on politics when asked about climate change. 

Smucker said he believes in climate change and said, "it's up to us to preserve (the environment) for future generations," but he added, "there's still some disagreement on how much human activity has led to that."

The remark received laughter from the audience, and King was quick to once again bring up campaign financing.

"The influence of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania and the federal government is immense," she said. "This is the power of special interests who want to keep things the way they are."

She criticized Smucker for receiving contributions from ExxonMobil — he's received $5,000 so far this year, according to the FEC — and emphasized that she shares youthful Americans' interests in addressing climate change head-on.

Immigration: On immigration, both candidates said the current immigration system is broken, but for different reasons.

King emphasized the importance of a pathway to citizenship and the economic importance of refugees and immigrants, citing that Lancaster County brings in 20 times more refugees per capita than any other area in the country.

"We don't have a shared ancestry, but we have shared destiny," King said. "We're in this together."

Smucker, on the other hand, said the immigration system needs to be fixed through securing our borders, "in some places" building a wall and making sure immigrants don't overstay their visas.

"We need to make sure we don't find ourselves in this same situation down the road, where we have to have another population we have to handle," Smucker said.

In the candidates' closing marks, Smucker reiterated the economic progress under the Trump administration and said he would keep his campaign promises just as he did in the last election.

He also took one last jab at King and said, "Socialism is absolutely the opposite of what has made our country great in the first place."

King ignored the remark in her closing statement and instead emphasized the importance of change through grassroots politics, fighting special interests and avoiding aggressive, name-calling politics.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.