Colorado Senator Owen Hill (R) and Dr. Stephanie Rose Spaulding (D) debated immigration, inequality, education, and more on Nov. 30 at the Centennial Campus of Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC). Both Candidates are competing to replace Representative Doug Lamborn as the representative of Colorado’s 5th Congressional District in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Sen. Hill currently represents Colorado’s 10th Senate District in El Paso County and heads the Senate Committee on Education. He is a veteran and graduate of the Air Force Academy and a strong advocate for conservative education reform.
Spaulding is a self-described social justice activist, an assistant professor of women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS), and author of Abolishing White Masculinity from Mark Twain to Hiphop: Crises in Whiteness.
Professor Robin Schofield of the English Department moderated the debate and began by asking the candidates about their stances on immigration policy.
Spaulding cited the recent repeal of the Deferred Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) and the wave of deportations sweeping the country as her primary concern with US immigration policy, recalling that many children were afraid to go to school after the 2016 general election for fear they might be deported.
“Every day, as an educator, I touch and I see the horror and the terror that is a part of their lives because we have a broken system, and we are scapegoating the wrong people in trying to fix it,” Spaulding said. “We have young people who are horrified every day because they don’t know if they’re going to get a knock on the door, or if they’re going to be out at work and come home to find that they’re family isn’t there.”
“That does not represent the greatness of America. That does not make us a global leader.”
Spaulding said if she is elected she would urge Congress to “get off their butts, and pass a clean Dream Act.”
Spaulding also emphasized the need to examine our biases and change our discourse when we discuss immigration.
“The reality is when we talk about immigration in the United States, we’re not talking about immigration. We say that word, but when we say ‘immigrant,’ we are very specifically racializing the conversation,” Spaulding said. “If you start with fear – if you start by hate-mongering – then you are never going to have a humanistic response to what is going on when we talk about immigration.”
Hill stressed that “immigration” specifically refers to who may become citizens of the US and that those persons should be expected to assimilate into American culture.
“We need to do a much better job of saying, ‘You get to come, not just because you know someone over here, but do you believe in the values that we hold dear of liberty and equality? Do you share a desire to be a part of a common language, which is part of what makes us successful here?’ Is there a sense that they buy into the culture and the mindset of what it means to be American?” Hill said.
Hill said immigrants – those who wish to become citizens – need to be distinguished from those who come to the US to work, visit, or other reasons and that Congress has failed both at separating the two categories of persons and developing comprehensive, efficient policies to deal with each.
Hill also disagreed with Spaulding’s claim that the immigration conversation is racialized in the US.
“When you talk about building a wall – building a wall where?” Spaulding rebutted, referring to previous public comments Hill has made on immigration. “Because if you’re talking about building a wall between Mexico and the United States, that’s racializing it.”
“No one’s ever talking about building a wall between Canada and the United States,” Spaulding said. “In most people’s minds – and in the media – when we have the conversation, it is about Mexico and Mexicans. That’s a problem.”
Later, student Carmen Martinez specifically asked how the candidates felt about the recent repeal of DACA.
Spaulding reiterated the importance of Congress passing a clean Dream Act.
Hill said because the number of people around the globe hoping to immigrate to the US in search of better economic opportunities is so overwhelming, the US needs “reasonable limitations” on who the US accepts.
“I was one of the first Republicans ever to support Dreamers going to school and paying in-state tuition, so I got in a lot of trouble for that,” Hill said. “At the same time, you don’t get to come to America just because you have a certain age, just because you have a certain limit on when you were born. And we’ve taken it even farther to suggest that somehow you have a right to be here because of a certain age.”
Martinez said as a child of an immigrant mother, she was very disappointed with Hill’s answer.
“He said that he voted on it a long time ago and got reprimanded for it, so I feel like he changed his stance on it because of all the bad reputation he got for voting for something that Republicans don’t support,” Martinez said, referring to Hill’s comment about “getting in trouble” for supporting in-state tuition for Dreamers.
Martinez also disagreed with Hill’s statement that age should not entitle anyone to stay in the US.
“As a minor, if you’re brought here without a choice, you should be getting a little more help than a 32-year-old adult who knows what they’re doing,” Martinez said. “Or what about an infant coming over, not knowing what his future is going to hold? If his future holds being deported to a country he’s never known, I don’t think that’s fair at all.”
The candidates were also asked about their opinion on the impacts of the historic wealth gap in the US and how they planned to address it.
Hill emphasized the importance of education reform to help close the gap.
“We cannot solve it by pulling the top down, and that’s why education is such a big deal,” Hill said. “We have got to find a way to give far more people the same chance to succeed, to give far more people the opportunity to create, build and develop that which creates wealth, that which creates value.”
Hill also said Congress needs to “stop double taxing” small businesses while giving tax loopholes and exemptions to large corporations and wealthy individuals.
Spaulding spoke first about the impacts of the wealth gap, before moving on to how she would address it.
“I know there are people who are full-time students here – there are people who are full-time employees here – and it’s not enough. That’s the impact,” Spaulding said. “The vast majority of you are in a generation where you will not have a standard of living that your parents had. That’s the impact.”
“We are working harder and harder to just to make ends meet.”
Spaulding also noted that although the unemployment rate in Colorado is relatively low compared to the rest of the country, that statistic can be deceiving. For instance, those who have quit looking for work are not officially counted as unemployed, and unemployment is higher among communities of color, single mothers, and other marginalized demographic groups.
Spaulding said she actually agrees with Hill on how to address the problem: by removing the tax exemptions and loopholes for the wealthy and large corporations and taxing the poor and middle class more fairly. She also said the tax burden Americans making under $30,000 a year will take on under the Trump administration’s new tax plan is “unconscionable.”
Spaulding also agreed that the US needs to invest more in education, noting that Colorado “lags behind the nation in terms of education funding.”
Spaulding also stressed the importance of ensuring that wages keep pace with rising costs of living and inflation.
“We have a booming housing economy right now, and people can’t afford rent, and they’re working two or three jobs,” Spaulding said.
“We are pricing people out of their homes,” Spaulding said. “I have a student who is military, and her housing voucher is for $1600. For her family of five, the only thing that she can find in terms of housing is $2400. How can we do that to our military population, let alone every other worker in southern Colorado?”
“We are not creating wealth if we keep pricing people into a cycle of poverty,” Spaulding concluded. “If we keep taxing people above and beyond what is conscionable, if we keep under-educating and taking away opportunities from those who need it the most, we are never going to close a wealth gap.”
The candidates were also asked whether they agreed with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s decision to suspend Department of Education regulations put in place by the Obama administration to protect students from being defrauded by for-profit colleges and what they would do to help protect students from predatory for-profit colleges, such as ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges.
Hill said he wasn’t familiar with the specific regulations DeVos suspended, but emphasized the importance of students making informed decisions about the schools they attend, as well as the type of education they pursue.
“We all make decisions every single day. What school are we going to go to? What classes are we going to take? Who we’re going to go on a date with, or what food we’re going to consume, or what chemicals we’re going to put in our bodies,” Hill said. “So we have to recognize, first and foremost, that we make the decision on where to go.”
“We should be far more selective on where we choose to spend our money on higher education,” Hill said. “When you look at $1.1 trillion of student debt in the United States of America, we have to ask: are we getting what we’re paying for? In a lot of cases, I’d say that we’re not.”
Spaulding said she did not support DeVos’s suspension of the Obama-era regulations and emphasized the importance of protecting marginalized persons and communities from predatory practices, as well as making sure those same communities have access to the knowledge and resources they need to protect and empower themselves.
“This goes back to the wealth gap question, because when you have communities that are systemically disadvantaged generation after generation, there is a cultural capital of even navigating higher education that folks who have greater wealth understand and most people in the United States who are marginalized do not understand,” Spaulding said. “How do you even fill out a financial application for FAFSA? That’s not knowledge that reaches every community in the United States.”
Spaulding compared the need to regulate for-profit colleges to the decision to ban credit card companies from college campuses to keep them from preying on financially illiterate students.
Finally, the candidates were asked how to go about healing the wide social and political divides in the US today and bring Americans from either side of the aisle together.
Spaulding shared an anecdote from her own life about how she challenged herself to do 52 different things for a year – one per week – and encouraged the audience to get out of their comfort zone and meet people from different social, political and religious groups.
“Talk to people you don’t normally talk to. Go to places you don’t normally go. If you’re Christian, go to a Buddhist temple. If you’re an atheist, talk to somebody of faith,” Spaulding said. “Shake things up.”
Hill said voters need to become more engaged in local politics to make their needs known to their representatives.
“Almost no one knows who their state senator is,” Hill said, referring to himself. “At the state level, we’re part-time. We get paid $30,000 a year – it’s public record, what we get paid – and we don’t have any staff. So really, it’s just one person representing about 170,000 people in Colorado. That model doesn’t work if we also don’t invest in trying to learn who are these people? Who do they stand for? What do they believe in?”
“Set aside two hours next year – just two hours. Spend one hour with your state rep and one hour with your state senator. Invite them for a beer or a cup of coffee.” Hill said.
The debate was the final event in PPCC’s three-part Civil Discourse Series, sponsored by the Global Village, the Student Activities Board, Phi Theta Kappa, and the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.