This report is part of a series produced by WKMS News highlighting races appearing on the 2020 general election ballot. Other parts of this series published thus far include a Q&A with the 42nd Judicial Circuit Family Court Judge candidates, voter guide for state legislative races, and a report on the proposed constitutional amendment for judicial reform.
Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District seat, which represents 35 counties from the western tip of the state into central Kentucky, is among the many featured on the November ballot. Incumbent Republican Congressman James Comer, who’s seeking reelection, told WKMS his top concern for Kentucky at the moment is economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Another hot-button issue for voters this election season is police reform as part of the movement to end systemic racial injustice. Comer said he does not support defunding police, he does not support “bashing” police, and he does not support no-knock warrants. Comer said he does support proposed legislation which calls for more accountability and transparency in law enforcement.
Comer said he supports the broad goals of Senator Tim Scott’s police reform efforts, including ensuring best practices are followed and accountability is pursued in law enforcement. Scott’s proposed legislation includes: chokehold bans, expanded access to body cameras for officers through a grant program, penalties for not utilizing those cameras; creates a database of disciplinary records for law enforcement departments to use in hiring practices, and directs the U.S. Justice Department to provide de-escalation training tactics and implement duty-to-intervene policies.
In addition to the many facets listed in Scott’s proposed bill, Comer proposed another level of transparency: a website accessible to the public which would contain records of incidents in which officers were reprimanded for certain offenses.
“I think that law enforcement should be transparent, like every other part of government,” he explained. “And I believe that 98% of law enforcement officers are on the up-and-up and do a tremendous job. But law enforcement, like every other profession, has some bad actors, and the public deserves to know who those bad actors are. If a police officer has been written up for excessive force or any type of irregularity, then I think the public should know about it.”
Comer said based on conversations with his colleagues, those ideas regarding police reform have support on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
With respect to the commonwealth’s recovery from the economic devastation caused by COVID-19, Comer said first and foremost, “we need a vaccine.”
“[The vaccine] needs to be safe and 100% effective, and it also needs to come at no cost to anyone,” he added. “We don't want cost to be a factor in this. We need to solve the problem, and the problem is COVID-19.”
Secondly, he said, Kentucky needs to reopen its economy.
“A safe and effective economic recovery depends on numerous factors, including the development and distribution of an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the reopening of schools and childcare facilities with appropriate precautions, and a commitment to stimulating our economy in smart and targeted ways,” he said. “We need to focus less on spending trillions of dollars in taxpayer money that we don’t have, and more on making targeted investments in distressed industries who employ a significant number of Americans.”
Comer noted the tourism industry is one that’s taken a major blow, with airlines furloughing massive numbers of employees and trade shows, such as the American Quilter’s Society’s annual Quilt Show in Paducah, canceled across the region. But he said one of Kentucky’s neighboring states isn’t hurting as badly as Kentucky because the state’s executive orders aren’t as restrictive.
“Representing southern Kentucky down the Tennessee line, I can see the difference in attitudes towards reopening the economy from Kentucky to Tennessee. Tennessee shut their economy down a little after Kentucky did but reopened it very quickly, Kentucky’s is still not reopened. And Kentucky is a poorer state than Tennessee,” he said. “So I feel like if we're going to ever improve our economy in Kentucky, if we're ever going to get people out of poverty in Kentucky, if we're ever going to rebuild our infrastructure in Kentucky and get broadband in Kentucky, we have to have a viable economy in Kentucky we can't continue to have the highest unemployment rate in the nation. I just think Kentucky has done it backwards.”
Comer said he’s concerned about what the Kentucky General Assembly will face when it convenes in January, because he anticipates a major budget deficit due to the large number of businesses and industries that remain shut down since March.
Another priority Comer noted is redirecting production of critical supplies from China back to the United States. He said that’s another measure receiving bipartisan support, and as the Republican Leader of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, he confirmed the majority of the committee’s investigators are looking into what it would take to move the supply chains back into the U.S.
Those products, Comer said, include personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, medical gowns, gloves, etc.
“It's pretty complicated in some industries to just pack up and go across the globe and start all over,” he explained. “There are reasons that some of these industries are manufacturing in China, some of that environmental regulation, some of that cheap labor, whatever the reasons, we're trying to compile the list, and and we're going to be focused on trying to get those industries back to the United States.”
Comer said after the pandemic reached the western Kentucky region, 12 garment factories in the 1st congressional district converted to PPE factories, and three of them are still in production.
“We have a lot to be proud of in the first congressional district with a lot of the garment factories stepping up and filling the void and hopefully, those businesses can adapt to this new business model and instead of sending money to China for PPE, we can buy it in Kentucky.”
Comer also briefly touched on coronavirus relief aid, saying if another round of relief funding is issued by the federal government he believes the “working middle class” should be the recipient.
“I strongly support if we do any more stimulus, the earned income tax credit goes to the people who are working, working middle class people, not rich millionaires, and not people that sit at home and draw off working class people. It seems like every policy that comes out of Washington either benefits the very rich or the very poor and the working middle class always get stuck with the bill,” he explained. “And what my priority is, is the working middle class, the people that are working that are paying taxes, that are struggling to make ends meet. They're the ones that need the attention and the relief in Washington.”
Comer was elected to Kentucky’s 1st District Congressional seat in 2016. He previously served six terms as a state representative beginning in 2000, and in 2011 was elected Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture.
Comer’s opponent, Democrat James Rhodes, did not respond to the election survey issued by WKMS.
*edited to add: Rhodes reached out to WKMS and says he did not receive the survey when it was initially issued. This story may be updated.