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Politics

What Can Congress Do To Help The Economy? Candidates For Texas' 6th Congressional District Respond

Campaign signs for Ron Wright, which is dark blue with white block letters and red stars, and Stephen Daniel, a lighter blue with white block letters, are stuck in the ground amid an array of other signs for politicians running for elected office in Mansfield.
Christopher Connelly
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KERA News
Ron Wright and Stephen Daniel campaign signs outside of the Tarrant County Sub-Courthouse in Mansfield.

Both Republican Rep. Ron Wright and his Democratic challenger, lawyer Stephen Daniel, want Congress to approve more coronavirus aid. Exactly what should be in that bill is only the start of their disagreements about the economy.

When he was elected to represent Texas’ Sixth Congressional District two years ago, Ron Wright planned to go to Washington to rein in spending and deflate the ballooning national debt.

As an Arlington city councilmember, chief of staff for former Rep. Joe Barton, and Tarrant County’s tax assessor-collector for nearly a decade, Wright built his political brand around fiscal conservativism.

So even he was surprised in March, when he found himself voting for a single coronavirus relief bill with a $2.2 trillion price tag, and no real plan to pay for it.

“That is exactly the kind of thing that I was prepared to go to Washington to stop. And then I found myself voting for all this debt,” he said. “But I did, and I would do it again.”

Wright said these are unprecedented times and unprecedented action is necessary. He wants Congress to authorize another round of stimulus and aid to fight the coronavirus and hold together a tattered economy. Exactly how to pay for it is a question for a later date, he said.

“If that requires another $1 trillion, then it requires another $1 trillion,” Wright said. “I don’t like that, but that’s kind of where we are.”

Photograph of Ron Wright dressed in a blazer and bow tie holds a microphone and talks to a crowd at a restaurant in Arlington in 2018. In the background, a white banner with blue and red lettering reads Arlington Republican Club.
Christopher Connelly
Ron Wright addresses primary voters at an Arlington Republican Club event in 2018. He won a runoff primary against Republican Jake Ellzey and then beat Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez to win an open seat in Congress.

His opponent, Democrat Stephen Daniel, also said another round of stimulus and aid is necessary. Daniel is hoping to win election in the district, which includes much of Arlington and southeast Tarrant County, and all of Ellis and Navarro Counties.

“The No. 1 issue is getting people back to work in the economy,” Daniel said.

Daniel practices law with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Daniel lives in Maypearl and works in Waxahachie.

“We need to make sure that if we are going to put people back to work, that we can put people back to work safely,” Daniel said. “If they need PPE, they need testing, then we need to make sure that they have that.”

Both men say Congress should have acted by now to help the American people. And both laid the blame for not passing a new coronavirus relief bill on the other party’s leadership.

Most of the help that Congress has authorized in the spring, as the country settled into lockdown and the economy cratered, is now gone. Meanwhile, poverty rates are rising, the economic recovery is slowing, and millions remain out of work.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been trying for months to hash out a deal with the Trump administration for a new stimulus package. Her chamber passed a sweeping $3 trillion package called the HEROES Act back in May.

Republicans in the Senate have so far failed to come up with a viable alternative, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has focused his chamber on pushing through the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett rather than a stimulus bill.

In interviews at early voting sites in Arlington and Mansfield, Democratic and Republican voters were frustrated and disappointed.

“Congress and the President — those that are in office — they’re not thinking about all that the pandemic is taking away,” said Theresea Snow of Arlington.

Snow, a title inspector, is a Republican, and she voted for all Republicans this year. She said she’s hoping Congress approves another round of stimulus checks and more funding for food banks.

Snow is skeptical anything will get done in Washington unless one party wins control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. And she doesn’t want it to be the Democratic Party.

Kimberly Ellis does. She’s concerned aid will be tilted in favor of the wealthy and well-connected under a Republican government. She said political elites seem out of touch with the challenges facing families, and Republicans seem especially callous. These days, she’s juggling a day job for an insurance company, her own one-woman cosmetology business and helping her granddaughter with remote school.

“I think there’s a lot of people having to make a choice about whether I go to work and whether I stay home with my kid. I mean, we need some protection there.”

Among the unresolved issues stymying another round of stimulus, according to Wright, are liability protections for businesses and employers. Republicans want to make it harder for customers or workers to sue employers if they are exposed to the coronavirus, but Democrats are skeptical about the impact of such protections on worker safety.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said businesses could face a wave of frivolous litigation without a liability shield, and he pledged to block any relief package without the protections.

“If you don’t have some liability provision, you’re going to see a lot of lawsuits pop up. I think that’s shameful, but I think it’s also a reality,” Wright said, adding that Democratic House leaders are playing politics by passing legislation without a liability shield.

Democrats say they’re open to some protections from frivolous lawsuits, but they don’t want to give immunity to irresponsible employers who allow unsafe working conditions or endanger customers. Daniel, a personal injury lawyer, said current law is sufficient to protect employers or business owners making a good-faith effort to keep people safe.

“I would not give on that,” Daniel said. “I mean, if a business takes reasonable precautions to ensure that its employees are protected, that’s one thing. But to give a blanket liability is not a good thing for workers.”

This is nowhere near the only difference between the two men, of course.

Daniel wants to increase the minimum wage, invest in broadband and in infrastructure projects that’ll help address climate change. He thinks the Trump administration’s massive tax cuts should be rolled back for the very wealthy. His main priority, though, is lowering prescription drug prices and expanding access to health care. He supports the public option that Joe Biden has proposed.

“I know folks who pay more for health insurance premiums per month than they do for their mortgage or car, and that’s just striking and it’s not right,” Daniel said.

Ron Wright wants to make permanent the 2017 Trump tax cuts and expand on them. He wants to continue rolling back regulations on businesses. After we’re gotten past the coronavirus crisis, he said Congress will need to take a hard look at spending cuts to address the $27 trillion national debt.

“You know, we’re going to do what’s necessary to get the economy back on track,” Wright said.

The race hasn’t made much of an impression on many of the voters KERA spoke with. Neither candidate is campaigning in person. Wright is being treated for metastatic lung cancer and was hospitalized earlier this year for pneumonia. Neither candidate has bought television ads, and other nearby races have garnered a lot more attention.

The 6th District was named early as one of three House districts national Democrats are targeting. In 2018, Wright beat Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez by 7.7 percentage points. In 2016, incumbent Republican Rep. Joe Barton won re-election with a 19-point margin. Barton retired after a scandal involving nude photos and sexually explicit messages were made public in 2017.