District 2 congressional candidates face off

Hundreds of students from Lexington get a first-hand look at the political process in live-streamed debate from River Bluff High

Hundreds of students from Lexington County got a chance on Friday to see the political process up close and personal at River Bluff High School.


Second District congressional debate participants (from left): Arik Bjorn, incumbent Rep. Joe Wilson, Eddie McCain. (Photo by Rachel Ham)

A debate between District Two GOP congressional incumbent Rep. Joe Wilson of Springdale, and challengers Democrat Arik Bjorn of Columbia, and American Party nominee Eddie McCain of Leesville, gave approximately 150 invited guests and around 650 students from River Bluff and Lexington high schools, along with a class from Lexington Elementary School, a first-hand view of electoral politics.

The debate was not open to the general public, but was streamed live on Youtube and is still viewable online in its entirety. (Watch the replay here).

While the elementary students understandably got a bit restless amid all the serious adult talk, the juniors and seniors and assembled guests of each candidate listened intently as the three men laid out their visions for the nation and the district, which includes all of Lexington, Barnwell, and Aiken counties and portions of Richland and Orangeburg counties.

Amid barbs from both Bjorn and McCain on his voting record, Wilson defended his 15 years in Congress, and said his primary focus was on job creation and a strong national defense, and reversing some of the key initiatives of the Obama Administration, most notably Obamacare, which Bjorn noted the congressman had already voted unsuccessfully more than 60 times to repeal in the GOP-controlled House.

Bjorn said his focus would be to repair the state’s and nation’s crumbling infrastructure, often invoking the memory of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the creation of the Interstate Highway system, “the greatest public works project in the nation’s history.”

Bjorn said infrastructure improvements are vital to the state and nation’s commerce, but have been delayed or fought by Republicans. He added that spending for such improvements to roads, bridges, dams, and the nation’s power grids also would spur massive job creation.

The 43-year-old public librarian also touted the need to focus on building a “knowledge-based” workforce to further create jobs in the state, where the number of qualified employees for such technology-based currently is lagging. One way to do that, he said, is to support the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand hi-speed Internet into rural and underserved schools and communities in South Carolina and nationwide.

Bjorn also expressed his support for Obamacare, and the need to eventually get to a single-payer system as have most other Western nations, saying healthcare “is a human right.”

Bjorn, who also is the nominee of the state’s Green Party, stated he was also for a strong defense, but lamented that politicians have forsaken returning veterans who have been injured in “unjust wars” only to return to be victimized again by a Veterans Administration that is in disarray.

McCain told the audience his one over-arching goal was strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, which outlines just 18 responsibilities, and said both Democrats and Republicans in Congress consistently overstep the bounds of their authority, often to the detriment of individual states and localities that have been stripped of their decision-making powers.

Like Bjorn, he also had plenty to say about Wilson’s tenure, saying the congressman had forsaken the conservative principles of his party. McCain, who has run twice unsuccessfully against Wilson as both a Republican and Libertarian, chided Wilson mostly for his support of global and regional trade deals such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

McCain argued such trade deals are job killers, and also erode America’s sovereignty.

Wilson, who refrained from responding to any personal attacks, explained that his support for such trade deals were done at the behest of business interests in the state who said they were needed. For example, while McCain argued that CAFTA had destroyed the state’s once-dominant textile industry, Wilson said CAFTA actually had safeguarded jobs that would have otherwise disappeared if not for the trade deal.

Sometimes the politicians agreed. Sort of.

On the topic of guns, Bjorn said common-sense gun laws are necessary in our current culture, noting the Second Amendment itself used the phrase “well-regulated.” But Wilson and McCain both iterated their belief that gun laws can go too far. Wilson said the nation simply needed to enforce the gun laws currently on the books, while McCain went even further and said he basically was against any gun laws.

On immigration, Bjorn said immigration built the country and still sustains it, and stated his belief that the current furor caused by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his call for a wall on the nation’s southern border only foments misplaced suspicion and hatred. As with guns, Wilson called for enforcing the laws on the books, while McCain lamented that a porous southern border could allow virtually anyone to cross, including terrorists.

After the debate, each candidate met with students and had pictures taken. School officials, such as debate organizer and River Bluff teacher Michael Burgess, said the opportunity students received was priceless and a meaningful educational experience.

Moderated by River Bluff’s Center for Law and Global Policy Development lead teacher Meg Huggins, who is also the district’s current Teacher of the Year, the debate focused on the topics of American Strength, American Prosperity and American Society, which were developed by the center’s students, who also formulated the questions posed to the candidates.


Teacher and moderator Meg Huggins (center), and River Bluff students Alex Bowers, Audra Knight, Megan Simmons, and Georgia Loadholt pose questions to the candidates Friday. (Photo by Rachel Ham)

Four second-year Center students, Alex Bowers, Audra Knight, Georgia Loadholt and Megan Simmons, asked the questions.

“It’s really important that all students think about issues outside of our community,” Bowers said.

Most of the students who were in attendance will not able to cast a vote on November 8, but many said they realized the importance of the issues being discussed by the candidates and how decisions on those issues will affect them.

Loadholt noted students can get involved in the election process even without casting a vote.

“The debate is a great opportunity to learn about civil discourse,” she said. “It’s important for students to know they have a voice and, even if they can’t vote, they can campaign and volunteer.”

Knight said the Center crew worked on hard on questions. She said they were aided by the fact that they are consistently visited by local and state politicians who discuss the issues with them.

“All this time we’ve been learning a lot about local issues, state issues, and international issues,” Knight said. “So, we’ve become really well-versed. With the questions, we were able to use all the experience we’ve gotten through the Center.”

Fellow Center student Kristina Wuchenich, one of the small handful of students who will be eligible to vote Tuesday, described herself as conservative, and said she thought Wilson won the debate.

“I’m voting for Joe Wilson,” she said. “This (debate) really solidified my ideas, but I was planning to anyways.”

Her two Center cohorts, Knight and Simmons, are Democrats but not eligible to vote this year. Simmons, who moved to Lexington from Connecticut, said her fellow River Bluff students are “definitely conservative.”

“Audra and I are actually the president and vice-president of the (RBHS) Young Democrats, so sometimes getting people to come to our club is like pulling teeth,” she said. “But I think this debate was very good to show that not only is there Republicans in government, but there’s also third parties and people outside of the two-party system.”