Only one candidate was present for the News Tribune's election forum Tuesday night, but two issues emerged to dominate the discussion: the nation's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and federal student loan forgiveness.
Bethany Mann, the Democratic challenger for Missouri's 3rd Congressional District, bucked her party's leadership and said the pandemic is ongoing and that student loan forgiveness isn't the ultimate solution to skyrocketing higher education costs, but a good policy nonetheless.
Mann was the only candidate to participate in the News Tribune's election forum Tuesday night. Republican incumbent Blaine Luetkemeyer, who has represented the district since 2009, declined the invitation because of conflicting campaign events elsewhere in the district.
Mann, a Brentwood mother and agricultural scientist, said the country is still experiencing the financial woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic itself.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, declared the pandemic over in a "60 Minutes" interview Sept. 18.
"I don't pledge my allegiance to the party," Mann said. "I'm a scientist. I like to take in lots of different opinions and come up to my own conclusion, you know, all that stuff backed by data."
"I don't believe that the pandemic is over," she continued. "I think that we have better ways to handle it right now. I think we have a better handle on some of our supply chain."
When asked about the U.S. response to the pandemic, Mann said it was initially a lot of finger-pointing and blame shifting, which resulted in Americans dying.
Lawmakers were aware production facilities in China were shutting down before the virus hit U.S. borders, she said, but they didn't warn citizens effectively.
"Instead of go in and warn us, and say, 'Hey, this thing looks really bad. We don't have all the answers but here are some mitigating steps you can take to protect yourself and your family,' instead the representative that's not here tonight (Luetkemeyer) decided to tell his constituents that UV light kills COVID and just go to the lake," Mann said. "He had a duty to warn and he failed to do so, and as a result Americans died. I don't think that's acceptable."
Mann said the lack of effective messaging from the federal government and lawmakers led people to delay getting vaccines. She said people should still get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, and take steps to mitigate exposure for immunocompromised people.
The pandemic emphasized vulnerabilities in infrastructure, particularly building ventilation systems, Mann said. Investments in infrastructure could have prepared the country with technology that kills viruses in air ducts, she said.
Mann said the decision of whether or not a business owner should keep their doors open amid the pandemic was a personal one and it was the government's role to provide resources so business owners could make an informed decision.
"That's where I think we were lacking," she said. "Our leaders decided not to give us good information and instead they just kind of left us on our own to make those choices."
On the topic of student debt forgiveness, Mann said she's in favor.
Biden announced a plan to cancel $10,000 of student debt for low- to middle-income borrowers and up to $20,000 of student debt for Pell grant recipients in August. Applications for the relief opened Monday.
"We bailed out the big banks, we bailed out Wall Street, we bailed out the auto manufacturing sector and it's time that American college students and those who went through their educational system get that same relief too," Mann said.
Companies that service student loans have bought and sold them so often the debt is artificially inflated, she said, and borrowers are often only paying interest instead of the principal balance they borrowed.
Mann, who took out student loans to attend the University of Illinois-Springfield, said students need to take personal responsibility for signing the loan contract, but the system is designed against them by charging interest rates that are financially unsustainable.
The country's student loan system is predatory, Mann continued, because it traps financially inexperienced young people into accumulating mass amounts of debt they don't know they can repay. The real issue is a lack of regulation on the banking industry, she said.
"A bailout's not the ultimate solution," Mann said. "The ultimate solution is to fix the system so that American consumers aren't caught having to bail each other out time and time again."
Mann said more corporate regulations can insulate consumers from market shocks.
"We need to fix the root cause and not penalize people for trying to make a better life for themselves," she said.
In addition to the pandemic and student loan forgiveness, Mann fielded questions about the nation's economy, illegal immigration, abortion rights and gun rights.
View the full forum online in the video player above or on the City of Jefferson's Youtube channel.
The News Tribune will be hosting two more election forums tonight. Cole County presiding commissioner candidates are scheduled for 6 p.m. and state House 60th District candidates for 7 p.m. at City Hall.