Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate discuss climate change, health care during forum

CHEYENNE - Candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in Wyoming's U.S. Senate race this year discussed their stances on a wide range of issues Thursday night, including health care reform, climate change and economic diversification.

Organized by Wyoming PBS, the Riverton Ranger and Wyoming Public Radio, the forum came about a month ahead of the state's Aug. 18 primary, though early and absentee voting have already started. 

With longtime U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi retiring at the end of the year, the ultimate winner in the Nov. 3 general election will be Wyoming's first newcomer in the Senate since 2007.

The forum, which followed a Republican candidate forum two nights earlier, lasted roughly an hour and a half, and the six candidates seeking the nomination touched on several key issues facing the state and the country.

The Democratic candidates were largely supportive of a single-payer health care system, though some of their individual proposals varied.

Yana Ludwig, a community organizer in Laramie, noted the U.S. spends more money per-capita on health care than any other country, yet still has some of the worst outcomes of all its peers. She argued a single-payer system would be cheaper than the country's current setup.

"About 30% of what we currently spend on health care isn't health care at all. It is going to private insurance companies, and what we get for that is basically gatekeeping," Ludwig said. "We need full coverage, and single payer will do that."

Merav Ben-David, an ecology professor at the University of Wyoming, was also supportive of a "Medicare for All"-style system, though she added current proposals have not addressed the needs of Wyoming and other rural states.

"One of the biggest problems that we have is we don't have access to health care in most of our communities," Ben-David said. "We have to go to other states to get the basics."

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, Jackson-based candidate Nathan Wendt said any discussions on health care need to include a nationwide plan for free, available coronavirus testing for anyone who wants it.

In terms of reform, Wendt said he favored a proposal for "Medicare for all, if you want it" that allows people to immediately enroll in Medicare, while allowing a more gradual transition in the system as a whole.

"Here in Wyoming, we believe in choice, and we believe in the freedom to decide what it is that you want to have, what sort of health care options you want," he added.

James DeBrine, a candidate who recently drew criticism from the Wyoming Democratic Party over tweets deemed insensitive, said the COVID-19 pandemic has made health care his top priority, emphasizing "people need to come before profits."

"Health care is the number one thing, then the Green New Deal, because the climate crisis is coming, but at least it's a few years, while health care means it's lives immediately," DeBrine said.

The candidates also discussed the future of energy in Wyoming, and within those talks, climate change was a recurring topic.

Ken Casner, a candidate from Carbon County who described himself as more of an independent, said the state's energy future should center on three industries: natural gas, solar and wind.

"Natural gas is clean, wind blows and sun shines, and other countries, such as Ireland, have been doing it for 13 years," Casner said.

Multiple candidates mentioned the Green New Deal, an amorphous proposal that would spend hundreds of millions to fight climate change and economic inequality, as a good place to start in the fight against climate change.

Wendt said the proposal would bring two positives to Wyoming: job creation in renewable energy industries and a role in combating climate change through carbon-capture technology.

Ludwig, who supports Bernie Sanders' version of the Green New Deal, said the proposal would create 20 million new jobs in the country. For her, the fight against climate change also means fighting for workers currently involved in the fossil-fuel industry.

"We are running out of time to deal with the climate crisis," Ludwig said. "The owners of coal mines and oil fields across this country are spending millions to lobby Congress to drag out the transition that we all know we need to make."

Others saw environmental issues unique to Wyoming that needed to be addressed. 

Rex Wilde of Cheyenne, who has previously run for other offices in the state, emphasized water rights as a key aspect of his campaign. He argued water is the resource Wyoming has left untapped due to century-old agreements governing the allocation of water in the West.

"We need somebody to go to Washington to fight for our water and have Wyoming become an autonomous region, and have money from the federal government for our water," Wilde said.

During the forum, discussions of economic diversification and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic were closely tied to those regarding climate change.

Ben-David argued many Wyoming workers who have been laid off during the pandemic lacked an adequate safety net, making it crucial for Congress to pass additional relief legislation.

"We had the CARES Act pass, and it was a little bit of a relief for people and small businesses, but unfortunately, that money is running out ... and the protections for people who can't pay rent or mortgage are running out, so a lot of people will become homeless," she said.

Ludwig, meanwhile, described her top priority as power redistribution, arguing the 1% dominates much of the political and economic landscape of America.

"I am in this race because the working class, those of us whose lives would fall apart if we stopped earning wages, those of us who can't afford a $400 emergency and the young people for whom the economic situation is incredibly bleak. We do not have representation in D.C.," Ludwig said.

Wendt mentioned the idea of doubling the pay for public school teachers as one that would bring widespread economic benefit. For him, acting on climate change was a main opportunity for job creation in the state.

"(Climate change) is a natural place for Wyoming to be leading," Wendt said. "There's all sorts of ways we can do it in renewable energy and beyond."