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Opponents hammer Womack in PBS congressional debate; he responds later

He responds after debate to scrutiny of legislative record by Bill Bowden | October 18, 2022 at 5:04 a.m.
Michael Kalagias (left) and Lauren Mallett-Hays (right) listen as incumbent Steve Womack speaks during the U.S. Congressional District 3 debate on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Steve Womack's opponents hammered him during a debate Monday for not getting more done during his 12 years in Congress.

"Our current representative touts that he knows what the 3rd Congressional District needs, yet he's been in office for 12 years and has only had one bill passed into law for a commemorative coin," Lauren Mallett-Hays, the Democratic Party's nominee, said in her closing comments in the Arkansas PBS debate held in Conway.

"He doesn't care about the people who are struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads," said Mallett-Hayes. "He doesn't care about the food-insecure neighbors that we have all throughout our district. He doesn't care about the shortages we're seeing in education labor and service-worker labor. He doesn't care about the burnout that our health care workers are seeing or that parents are concerned about their children getting the best education no matter where they live in the district.

"If he cared about all of those things, he would have been working on legislation over the last 12 years that address all Arkansans. I don't have to tell you how bad of a job he's done because his track record will do that for me. But I can tell you as your next congresswoman, I will fight tirelessly to rebuild our communities and bring a voice back to the 3rd Congressional District."

Womack didn't respond during his closing comments. He used the time instead to thank Arkansas PBS, his opponents and his staff.

But he responded during a news conference afterward.

"When my opponent started off on this whole tangent about 'Steve Womack's ineffective because he's only got one bill signed into law,' I want to correct some record here," Womack said. "It demonstrates her lack of understanding how Congress works. When I went to Congress, I had a chance to get on some of these authorizing committees, but no, I wanted to be an appropriator. I wanted to be a difference maker. And I knew the appropriations committee, it's an 'A' committee in Congress for a reason, because nothing happens on the discretionary side of the budget unless Congress approves appropriation bills."

Womack has served on the House Appropriations Committee for 12 years. He is the committee's senior member.

"So across the spectrum of 12 appropriation bills, I've had a hand in influencing the outcomes that have benefited not only our state and nation, but 3rd District Arkansans specifically," Womack said. "So everything from language reauthorizing the 12-foot channel in the [McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System] that I don't think she would even begin to understand the importance to the economy, to things like money for I-49, XNA, Camp Jack in Harrison, a sewer project in Yellville, a park in Goshen, a [Supporting Lifelong Success] campus in Fayetteville. I could talk ad nauseam about the number of things that we've been able to do through the language that we put in appropriation bills that help my district, our state and our nation. You don't have to have your name on a bill for it to be something that's truly effective for the people you serve."

The bill Mallett-Hays was referring to, the one that Womack sponsored and that became law, was H.R. 886, the United States Marshals Service 225th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act, which was passed by Congress in 2011. The coin sales provide funding for the United States Marshals Museum in Fort Smith.

"You don't hear anybody down there complaining about it," said Womack. "That produced about $4 million in revenue for a very important destination-quality museum for the U.S. Marshals Service.

"So we do a lot of things that maybe don't show up in the box score that she chose to assail here today."

Also challenging Womack is Michael Kalagias, a Libertarian. He also ran against Womack in 2018 and 2020.

The 3rd Congressional District has been a Republican stronghold since 1967.

At one point during Monday's debate, referring to the covid-19 pandemic, Womack said traveling nurses were "gouging" people because they "can charge exorbitant rates for the services they provide."

Kalagias didn't see it that way.

"More power to them that they are going to get paid for their skills ..." he said. "God bless the people that are leaving to get enough money to pay them for what they're worth. Calling them evil, saying they're gouging people because they're going to get the money they deserve, that's not an answer to the problem. An answer to the problem is in fact training more people that are capable of doing the job."

In his comments, Womack didn't say the nurses were evil.

Womack and Mallett-Hays agreed on the U.S. aiding Ukraine in its battle against Russia.

"We cannot afford for eastern Europe to be overrun by an unchecked Vladimir Putin, and he's trying to reclaim exactly what was dissolved in late '80s, early '90s," said Womack. "So I support the United States of America helping our allies so that we never have to trigger an Article 5 response in NATO [an attack against one NATO member being considered an attack on all of them]. And I promise you, if he's unchecked, if he's able to take Ukraine, he's going to take Georgia. He's going to take the rest of those Soviet bloc countries, and he's going to run roughshod over the rest of Europe, and that's something our country and the rest of the world simply cannot afford."

Kalagias had a somewhat different opinion.

"I would just like to remind everybody that our country was attacked in World War II," said Kalagias. "We were justified in going to war then. Putin hasn't attacked us. So, at a certain point, Europe is going to have to be able to solve their own problems. Because ... we can't afford to be the world's policeman."

Moderator Steve Barnes said there's legislation in the Senate to make abortion illegal nationwide following the reversal of Roe v. Wade in June. He asked the candidates their opinions.

Mallett-Hays said she wouldn't support that legislation.

"Abortion has become this very politicized thing, but when we look at the root of what abortion is, it is a medical procedure that is warranted at times," she said. "And there is nobody that needs to make that decision besides the female and her medical providers."

"I think a lot of times we're having the wrong argument," said Kalagias. "We shouldn't be arguing over what medical procedure should or shouldn't be allowed. This is a rights argument. So, should all people get equal protection under the law or not? So I believe everyone should get equal protection under the law and that includes children."

Womack said the Dobbs ruling pushed the decision back to the states, and Arkansas had a trigger law to ban abortion except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency.

"I believe on issues like this that are so close and so emotionally charged that the best place for those issues to be decided is closest to the people," said Womack, meaning on the state level. "But that said, I support a federal ban on abortions with certain exemptions, certain exceptions."

The election will be held Nov. 8.

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