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Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate seat differ on student loans and Medicare for All

Dem debate US Senate primary
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Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Traci Johnson, Morgan Harper and Tim Ryan met in debate at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, March 28, 2022

Ohio’s Democratic US Senate primary has brought in a lot less money than in the high profile and divisive Republican race for that open seat. But money is still a key issue. As part of the Statehouse News Bureau's 2022 Election series, Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reviews what the candidates have been saying about federal spending, the economy and fundraising.

In their campaign ads, Tim Ryan and Morgan Harper sound like they’re from two different parties:

The Columbus community activist and the longtime Youngstown area congressman do agree on some things, such as reproductive rights and a $15 minimum wage. But they differ on the federal government canceling student loan debt. At the Democratic US Senate debate at Central State University last month, Harper said student loan debt is causing what she called it a “multigenerational crisis” that’s leading people to put off buying homes and creating families for years.

“We need to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past 20 with all of this student debt by ensuring we have debt-free training and educational opportunities for people to pursue four-year college degrees, vocational training and other training that they might need to be part of this workforce,” Harper said at that debate.

Ryan wants people to be able to renegotiate their loan rates. But at that debate he said he doesn’t support canceling student debt: in his words, “if you took out a loan, you should pay it”. And he noted the issue doesn’t apply to most Ohioans.

“74% of the people in Ohio don’t go to college. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re also focusing on how do we build that workforce up too,” Ryan said at that debate. “We need to get shop class back in our schools. One of the dumbest things we’ve ever done is tell everybody they’ve got to go to college.”

They also differ on Medicare for All. At the debate, Harper called it one of her top priorities and said it would save money in the long run, which studies on both the right and left have confirmed.

“We need to do what every other developing country on this planet has done and provide health care for everyone. And it is the right thing to do and also the economically efficient thing to do,” Harper said at the debate

In an interview, Ryan said he wants affordable health care but isn’t supportive of Medicare for All because it could force people out of private health insurance they like.

“I am not. My position is we need a public option that people can buy into. So some kind of Medicare buy in,” said Ryan.

But they do agree on federal investments in workforce development, education, health care and clean energy jobs. Ryan said at the Central State debate that that money can come from increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans, noting a stat from the Economic Policy Institute showing the average CEO pay has gone up more than 1300% in the last 40 years.

“We need to ask them to pay more – not because we hate them, not because we’re anti-business, but because we only have 330 million people in this country. If we’re going to out-compete China, that’s 1.4 billion, we need to invest into all of our communities, and we have to ask the wealthiest to pay more,” said Ryan at the debate.

In an interview, Harper agreed tax increases are definitely on the table.

“We need to look at abilities to continue to increase revenue. And that's where I would prioritize closing tax loopholes that prevent a level playing field with regards to taxation for both the ultra-wealthy and very large multinational corporations that are able to end up paying a lower effective tax rate than a lot of us is just everyday people,” said Harper.

Harper also noted the US defense budget is very large compared to other nations, and she adds that Ryan has taken $400,000 from the defense contracting sector in his years in office. In the debate, Ryan didn’t apologize, saying there are tens of thousands of Ohio jobs directly connected to the defense industry.

“These are businesses that -- of course I’m going to work with them. They’re putting jobs into Ohio and employing Ohioans,” said Ryan in his rebuttal to Harper’s comment at the debate.

Ryan said he’s taken on wasteful spending in the defense sector, even when an Ohio company is involved. But Harper called those donations bribes to business leaders who don’t even live in Ohio.

“Wow. A real misunderstanding of what leadership should be and what it takes to have good economic development for the state of Ohio,” said Harper.

There is a third candidate in the race – Franklin County business owner and community activist Traci “TJ” Johnson. Ryan has raised $13 million and Harper $1.2 million. There is no record of fundraising by Johnson with the Federal Elections Commission.