Candidates competing in the primary elections for the U.S. House of Representatives in the state’s 5th Congressional district appeared on Monday’s edition of KET’s Kentucky Tonight.
Host Renee Shaw spoke with Republican Gerardo Serrano and Democrats Kenneth Stepp and Scott Sykes about jobs and the economy, health care, foreign policy, and constitutional issues. Incumbent Republican Hal Rogers did not participate in the program.
This was the first in a series of discussions with congressional candidates in contested races across the commonwealth this election season.
Kentucky’s 5th Congressional district comprises all or parts of 30 counties in eastern and southeastern Kentucky, including Bell, Breathitt, Boyd, Carter, Clay, Elliott, Floyd, Harlan, Jackson, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Laurel, Lawrence, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Lincoln, Magoffin, Martin, McCreary, Morgan, Owsley, Perry, Pike, Pulaski, Rockcastle, Rowan, Wayne, and Whitley counties.
Republican Gerardo Serrano is a native of Illinois and now lives and farms in the Jackson County community of Tyner. His Facebook page lists him as a conservative constitutionalist who leans Libertarian.
Serrano is part of a class action lawsuit against the federal government over a 2015 incident in which U.S. border officials seized his pickup truck under civil forfeiture statutes. According to news reports, Serrano was driving to Mexico to visit family when border guards found five bullets in his vehicle. Suspecting a possible crime, the agents seized the truck. Serrano is a licensed gun owner but did not have the weapon with him at the time. The case has yet to come before a judge and Serrano has not been charged with any crime, but his truck has not been returned to him.
The Republican sees this as an example of a larger government effort to undermine due process and other Constitutional rights.
“There seems to be a war on our Bill of Rights right now,” Serrano says. “If we can somehow bring back and embrace those Bill of Rights, I think we can be more unified. No matter what color you are, there’s rights being violated.”
Serrano also says the federal government is usurping the rights of states in many areas, including the regulation of hemp. He says states should be able to set their own policies on the agricultural crop.
“Hemp would be one of the perfect plants to grow all over Kentucky and especially in my district,” Serrano says. “We can grow this without the regulations but the state is afraid of the feds and the feds are acting like they have this power. My job would be in the federal level to say, look, you don’t have this power, you can’t do this, let [the states] work.”
Jobs and the Economy
Serrano says he would fight to protect coal industry jobs. He also says he would work to clean up government corruption that has hurt eastern Kentucky communities, and end regulations that he contends stifle access to jobs.
Kenneth Stepp was born and raised in South Carolina. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now lives in Clay County and practices law in Manchester. Stepp previously won the Democratic nomination in 5th Congressional district races in 2006, 2012, and 2014.
Eastern Kentucky native Scott Sykes lives in Pike County. He has been a teacher and an entrepreneur, and is a former Elkhorn City council member. In 2006 Sykes and his renewable energy company proposed building a massive wind farm in the state’s Appalachian region.
Sykes says he would focus on the economy so that the 5th district can rise up from being one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation.
“For too long we’ve put all of our eggs in one coal bucket,” Sykes says. “We have to diversify our economy if we are truly to move forward.”
Sykes says he would lure manufacturers to locate in the district’s 23 industrial parks and provide training to help dislocated coal miners transition to new jobs. While he says he supports the coal industry, Sykes also wants to create opportunities for solar and wind power generation in the region.
“If the coal companies decide to reopen the coal mines, that’s great,” says Sykes. “But we have to also look at alternative sources and moving toward a distributed grid [for energy storage] to make sure that these things happen.”
Stepp says his top priority is the budget deficit and the national debt.
“I was reading an article that says most countries that have had unrestricted debt have eventually collapsed,” Stepp says. “We don’t want that in the United States, so we need to bring our budget problems under control.”
To revitalize the local economy, Stepp says he favors more state and federal support for education and for job training. He acknowledges that many Appalachian coal mines have been “played out,” but he says he would maintain a focus on coal and natural gas production, and reduce government regulations on the energy sector.
“We’ve tried to have these subsidies for these esoteric kinds of energy,” Stepp says. “We need to stick to what things have worked the best and reduce subsidies for unproven energy sources.”
Both Democrats say they favor maintaining the Affordable Care Act, but Stepp says he might limit some aspects of the law. For example, he says it should better regulate how doctors prescribe opioids for patients with pain. He also wants to investigate why life expectancy of Americans has decreased in recent years.
Sykes says he would expand Obamacare to create universal health coverage under a Medicare-for-all type of program. He says moving to a single-payer system would prevent for-profit health care companies from limiting patient coverage as a way to maximize shareholder profits.
Stepp says he doesn’t support single-payer, but he does favor expanding Medicare by lowering the age of eligibility.
On the legalization of medical marijuana, Stepp says individual states should be allowed to decide the issue without intervention by federal regulators. Sykes prefers a national solution to the issue because he says medicinal cannabis “can produce miracles” for pain patients.
“We have to be able to provide that across the board,” Sykes says. “I think that legalizing it at the federal level is the only way that we’re going to make sure that all states and all citizens are able to have access to that medication.”
Sykes says U.S. presidents should seek congressional approval for any military intervention around the world. He also says he wants to see more proof that Russians meddled in the 2016 American elections.
With the news this week of another apparent chemical attack in Syria, Stepp says the U.S. should prevent other nations from using such weapons. But he says, in general, America is too engaged in global conflicts and the fight against terror groups.
“ISIS is pretty well defeated,” Stepp says. “We don’t need to try to rule the Middle East, we just need to try to get the worst elements out of it.”
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