HURON — Four men who want to represent South Dakota as the state’s only member of Congress for the next two years introduced themselves and their views to a State Fair audience on Sunday afternoon.
While KSFY-TV anchor Brian Allen gave them an opportunity to answer questions on issues ranging widely from gun control to immigration and from drug abuse to wage disparity, the candidates returned often to the critical need to reign in the skyrocketing national debt.
Democrat Tim Bjorkman went after the other major party candidate in Republican Dusty Johnson on several occasions, criticizing him for a lack of action on problems during his years working in Pierre.
Also featured at the debate were Ron Wieczorek, an independent, and George Hendrickson, a Libertarian.
Johnson described himself as a fierce advocate for rural South Dakotans and someone who builds bridges to get things done. “I have experience as a problem solver,” he said.
A candidate with no political background, Bjorkman said Congress is broken. “Both parties are responsible,” he said.
He said he would provide a strong independent voice to work from the middle of the aisle, fight to lower health care costs and protect Social Security and Medicare.
Hendrickson said he has seen firsthand how government works through experiences involving a child with medical issues. For change to happen, he said voters need to send people to Washington, D.C., who really care about others.
Wieczorek frequently brought up the economy and monetary system, saying until dramatic changes are made so the country is no longer drowning in debt, lawmakers are simply addressing matters with Band-aids.
“We’ve got to curb Wall Street,” he said. adding he has laid out a specific program that voters should consider before the election. “We need to put mind over money,” Wieczorek said.
On trade and tariffs, Johnson said trade disputes are causing structural damage. A strategy is needed to use more South Dakota products, he said.
Bjorkman said the framers of the country said tariffs should only be authorized by Congress.
Henrickson said people should be patient as Trump addresses the tariff issue, but in the long-term it needs to be shored up for farmers.
Tariffs are what built the country by raising income and are supported by Wieczorek.
As for a question on migrant workers and legal work visas, Hendrickson said he supports more availability of the work visas especially for agriculture.
Whatever is done is only part of the solution to immigration problems, Johnson said.
Bjorkman said addiction issues should be addressed to get people back into the workforce and help resolve immigration as a whole.
To combat the soaring national debt now at $21 trillion, the country needs to increase income, not cut it, Wieczorek said.
He encourages people to look at history, and how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt approached money issues during their presidencies.
“It’s time we get back to studying history,” he said.
The debt that his own three sons and other children will be saddled with is a central platform of his campaign, Johnson said.
“We did not get into this problem overnight and we will not get out of it overnight,” he said.
Tax cuts alone are not enough, he said.
Bjorkman said Johnson supported the tax cuts, which added $1.5 trillion to the debt, and is now talking about debt reduction. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said.
Hendrickson said government must trim the bureaucracy. Failed programs need to be cut or killed, he said.
Wall Street speculation and the military budget are to blame, Wieczorek said.
Asked whether the United States should send private contractors to fight the nation’s wars, the candidates agreed it was a bad idea.
Johnson said the men and women of the armed forces together with a united country should do the job. Bjorkman said it would be a huge mistake to contract out the war effort. While $7 trillion has been spent and untold lives have been lost, he said the underlying question is how long the wars will go on.
“What is there to show for it?” he said.
Hendrickson said he, too, is against contractors. “Sending mercenaries is not a good way to go,” he said.
“I don’t think we need to hire gunslingers,” Wieczorek said. He also questioned why the United States needs 800 military bases around the world when China only has one outside its country.
On the rising problem of drug use and abuse, the candidates were asked if they would support the use of federal money to build community triage centers.
A controlled medical program would be a good approach before spending tax dollars, Hendrickson said.
Drug abuse is a problem caused by collapsing income, Wieczorek said. People are selling their prescription drugs to pay their rent, he said. He said he would support federal money.
A focus on treatment will help address the issue, Johnson said. But he would like to see more analysis on federal money for centers.
Bjorkman, too, would support federal dollars to treat addictions before people end up in court or prison.
Gun-related violence is often a mental health issue, the candidates said.
Deaths caused by guns are incidents of suicide 60 percent of the time, and 90 percent of those people were mentally ill, Bjorkman said. The stigma of mental health should be removed, something not being done here, he said.
Hendrickson agreed that mental illness needs to be addressed, as well as gun safety training to prevent accidents.
When he was in high school, Wieczorek said every kid had a gun in the back of his pickup truck. “Nobody got shot,” he said. He blames violent video games and said those who produce them are committing a mortal sin.
Mental health should be the focus, Johnson agreed. But he said the greatest failing is to say mental illness is the problem and then not acting.
If elected, the candidates were asked what would need to happen for them to consider the next two years a success.
Republicans and Democrats need to come together to tackle the national debt in a multi-year approach, Johnson said.
Bjorkman said lowering the cost of health care while increasing its accessibility would be a success in his mind. Instead, special interests are driving the costs, he said.
Success for Hendrickson would mean identifying failing federal programs. “Find these programs, cut them or kill them,” he said.
Wieczorek said Wall Street, which “owns” both parties, must be controlled.
PHOTO BY ANGELINA DELLA ROCCO/PLAINSMAN
Seeking voter support in November’s election for South Dakota’s lone seat in Congress were, from left, Dusty Johnson, Tim Bjorkman, George Hendrickson and Ron Wieczorek at a Sunday debate at the State Fair sponsored by KSFY-TV.