By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Facing off on issues such as abortion, the war in Ukraine and student-loan forgiveness, Democratic Congressman Al Lawson and Republican Congressman Neal Dunn debated Tuesday after redistricting left them running for the same North Florida seat.
Lawson, whose district was almost completely revamped as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process, is challenging Dunn in Republican-leaning Congressional District 2. Dunn has represented District 2 since first getting elected in 2016, though the district’s boundaries have changed this year.
Dunn and Lawson traded barbs on a range of issues during Tuesday’s debate hosted by the Capital Tiger Bay Club. In an opening statement, Dunn criticized the Biden administration on issues such as inflation and what he called a “humiliatingly failed” military exit from Afghanistan.
“The Biden administration decisions and actions are a reckless, unnecessary disaster choking off opportunity for everybody in America. And Al votes with this president 100 percent of the time,” Dunn said.
Lawson pushed back against that argument and Dunn campaign ads that similarly paint Lawson as voting in lockstep with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“I don’t worry about Nancy Pelosi or Biden. What I worry about is bringing resources down so that our community can survive,” said Lawson, who told the crowd he has worked with colleagues across the aisle in his more than 30-year political career.
The candidates diverged on what the federal government’s role should be on abortion access, after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade and left abortion decisions to states.
Dunn, a longtime surgeon in Panama City before getting elected to Congress, said he is “strongly pro-life” and added that his stance is “a matter of my faith.” Dunn expressed support for state-level decisions about abortion.
But Dunn said that he supports exceptions to abortion restrictions for “rape, incest and the life of the mother.” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in April signed a law that restricts abortions to 15 weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for rape or incest.
Lawson took a hard stance against limiting access to abortions.
“Women have the right to make decisions with their bodies and their doctors and their families. And we don’t need to tell them what we can do and what they cannot do,” Lawson said.
As Russia continues to wage war in Ukraine, Dunn and Lawson were asked whether they agree with the Biden administration’s efforts to provide financial support and weapons to Ukraine. Both candidates condemned Russia’s invasion. But Dunn said the U.S. “avoiding serious engagement” in the conflict amounts to putting off the problems “until tomorrow.”
Lawson said he supported providing financial support and that more resources are needed to “protect their democracy.”
In answering a follow-up question, the candidates were divided about how the U.S. should respond if Russia uses nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
Lawson said the U.S. should “respond immediately” but stopped short of saying that American forces should use nuclear weapons to defend Ukraine.
“If nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, I advocate that we should respond,” Lawson said.
Dunn was noncommittal in his answer, saying potential military responses should be classified.
“War is a fluid situation. It is always … without exception, strategically naive and foolish to broadcast either the limits of what we will do or what we will not (do),” said Dunn, who also was a U.S. Army surgeon.
Dunn and Lawson also split on a Biden administration plan that seeks to forgive at least a portion of student loan debt for potentially millions of people.
“This is a patently unconstitutional act. The president does not have the power to appropriate money,” Dunn argued, adding that he doesn’t support forgiving debt for only “one group of people.”
Lawson pointed to student loan forgiveness as a “stimulus for them (students) to get into the job market.”
“We bailed out Wall Street, nobody said anything. But now we want to bail out the students, everybody said it’s not the right thing to do. Ladies and gentlemen, it is the right thing to do,’ Lawson said.
Dunn and Lawson are scheduled to participate in a second, televised debate on Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman for Dunn’s campaign.
Since getting elected to the U.S. House in 2016, Lawson has represented Congressional District 5, stretching from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. But a DeSantis-backed reapportionment plan this year put District 5 in the Jacksonville area.
That prompted Lawson to run against Dunn in District 2, which after reapportionment, includes all of the Tallahassee area. Lawson represented the Tallahassee area in the state House and the state Senate before going to Congress.