CINCINNATI — One of the closest and most studied Congressional races in the country is Ohio's First District, made up of parts of Hamilton and Warren Counties. The candidates are both native Cincinnatians, and both agree that Cincinnati can be a model for police reform and that there needs to be more bipartisanship.
But they differ on nearly everything else.
That's in part because Democrat Kate Schroder is trying to do something that no candidate from either party has done since maps were redrawn in 2010: unseat an incumbent, according to University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.
"To say that Steve Chabot is the number one target is almost an understatement," Niven said. "[Chabot's] the number one target of the last 10 years for Democrats."
Chabot, first elected in 1985 to Cincinnati City Council and later to the Hamilton County Commission, had a virtual lock on the congressional seat, beating popular local Democrats David Mann, Roxanne Qualls and John Cranley starting in 1994 and losing only once to Steve Driehaus in 2008 in 12 previous fights.
Chabot won the seat back from Driehaus in a rematch two years later.
He fought off a close, hotly contested race against Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval in 2018, with a 2–to-1 margin in Warren County. Chabot lost his home area of western Hamilton County in that race.
Chabot is a local politician if there ever was one – identifying locations more often than not by local churches and restaurants nearby. He talks to someone in his campaign office on Glenway Avenue about getting a new sign for a supporter he knows by name, adding that he ran into her recently and hers was stolen.
Schroder is a first-time candidate, having spent much of her career in public health with the Cincinnati Board of Health and more recently as the vice president of the Clinton Health Access Initiative. Early in her career she did legislative work with Senator Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Cincinnati City Council.
If you think she doesn't understand the challenge – and opportunity – ahead, think again.
Schroder wears a necklace in the shape of the 1st Congressional District around her neck, its 2010 reconfiguration widely accepted as a prime example of gerrymandering to protect it – and Chabot – from a "sweep" election. It was a Christmas gift last year from her husband, Cincinnati Assistant City Manager John Juech.
Schroder is a mother of two – ages 5 and 7. She'll readily tell you she's a fifth-generation Cincinnatian and a self-proclaimed "Cincinnati super fan." She also survived a bout with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2011.
It should come as no surprise then – during an international pandemic – that health and healthcare have positioned themselves as top issues in the race nationwide.
"I think the healthcare issue has been a big one, both by virtue of its importance in people's lives, by the virus and by the background that Kate Schroder brings to the race," Niven said. "So, the conversation is naturally tending in that direction."
WCPO 9 anchor Evan Millward spoke to the candidates separately on Monday about several key topics in this election.
On COVID-19 – and moving forward
Schroder may have the healthcare/business background, but Chabot has proactively touted his role as the ranking Republican congressman on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) soon after the start of the pandemic.
"I do think there should be a second round of PPP loan," he said. "Our district did very well in the first round. We got more loans, over 17,000 thousand, and more jobs were saved than in any other district in Ohio."
In July, the WCPO 9 I-Team found more than 4,700 local companies, nonprofits, churches and schools in Greater Cincinnati (even beyond the 1st Congressional District) received Paycheck Protection loans of at least $150,000 after telling the U.S. Small Business Administration they needed the money to retain 259,797 jobs.
That didn't include more than 9,000 organizations approved for loans less than $150,000 that list Cincinnati in their address. That information was withheld by the SBA to protect the privacy of sole proprietors.
And that data was "a far cry from an accurate picture of the program," said John Arensmeyer, founder of Small Business Majority.
"Consideration of direct payments is something I think we need to do, personally," Chabot said, adding that he disagreed with the latest proposal from Speaker Nancy Pelosi because of "pork" added to the bill. "I'd like to see this done before the election."
Chabot said Monday that Congress was on a 24-hour notice to be called back to the nation's capitol to take up a second round of COVID-19 relief.
"I think if it were just the Paycheck Protection program – PPP – we could get it done," he said. "It's some of those other things [like unemployment compensation, maybe direct payments] that have been the hang-ups thus far."
Schroder said Monday she hoped the next round of relief included PPP, but also a nationwide testing availability, among other things.
"I would say that it's really important to understand that the public health response and the economic response are interrelated," she said. "So in that next relief, it has to have both. We need widespread testing and treatment available."
In her work with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Schroder focused on prevention of child deaths from pneumonia, diarrhea, and another virus: HIV/AIDS.
"We need leaders that understand, the stronger the public health response, the sooner and more safely we can open the economy," she said. "The testing availability is a huge part of it, but we also need expanded PPP, expanded unemployment, we need support to our schools, our postal service, people on the front line."
The candidates differ – and have sparred repeatedly this election cycle - over the future of American healthcare.
Schroder supports the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, with some tweaks.
"I would start by improving upon Obamacare," she said. "We need to ensure that there is a mandate and that the subsidies are large enough so that it’s more affordable than it’s been for families. And ensure that the funding is there for navigators to continue to enroll people and expand Medicaid."
One key component of Schroder's plan to change healthcare is to enter into negotiations for Medicare drug prices.
"We're the only country in the world – that I'm aware of – that does not negotiate when the government buys prescription drugs," she said. "For so many drugs, the market is high margin and low volumes, but we need to sit at the table with pharmaceutical companies and say, 'We know that there has to be some profit to invest in research and development, but it needs to be low margin, high volume.'"
Schroder says that alone would save more than $342 billion, a number from the Congressional Budget Office in 2019. She has slammed Chabot for voting against this practice previously. This is a claim he says is untrue.
"Yeah, I think we should be negotiating," he said. "Sometimes it's in [bills], sometimes it's not. The bottom line is, the people deserve to have lower prescription drug prices."
Chabot points to 2017's American Health Care Act as a plan he supported to improve health care.
"In my view, [the American people] deserve better than Obamacare and I think we should replace it with something better that absolutely covers pre-existing conditions," he said. "I would not vote for anything unless pre-existing conditions were covered."
That's been a point of contention in this race – and was one in 2018. At that time, Politifact pointed out that some of Chabot's votes indeed did not provide for those with pre-existing conditions, but he said at the time Republicans and Democrats alike knew none of the Obamacare repeal bills would pass.
On economic recovery
COVID-19 relief plans aside, both candidates agreed that lowering the unemployment rate and jobs remained a high priority.
"We have to continue to reopen the economy and reopen the schools, and do it safely, make sure that is a priority," Chabot said. "We're having considerable success in that now, but we have a ways to go."
Schroder suggested infrastructure projects as a jump start to recovery.
"One of the things that I look to is how we got out of the Great Depression with the New Deal that invested tremendously in the Public Works Administration," she said. "I think something like that makes a ton of sense right now and there are a lot of cities like ours that have huge federal infrastructure projects like the Brent Spence Bridge and Western Hills Viaduct that are opportunities to invest in well-paying jobs."
Every election cycle, it seems, the bridge over the Ohio River comes up; it's promised, and just as soon forgotten. The congressman with decades of experience – and chances to replace it – said it is still a priority.
"I think infrastructure and improving it is critical," Chabot said. "I'm committed to that and I would like to see a plan we can actually vote for."
Chabot blamed Speaker Pelosi for a failed $2 trillion infrastructure plan, blaming in large part a public spat with the President last year.
But how do you pay for all these plans?
"It's going to be expensive, there's no question about that," Chabot said. "It's expensive, however, not to do anything. And this is important for our economy and local transportation and the needs that we have in our community."
Chabot said cutting wasteful spending and maintaining a balanced budget could make those projects priorities. He introduced a balanced budget amendment this session.
"You'll get these things done not by raising taxes," he said.
Schroder denied claims she supported raising taxes consistently, instead referring back to savings from drug price negotiations. She also said she would work to facilitate collaborating on major projects.
"We give a ton of tax dollars from this region, more than we get back from investment, and there are a ton of regions like this one that have a failing federal infrastructure project like the Brent Spence Bridge," she said. "Maybe I sit down and talk to some members that have similar federal infrastructure priorities and we can ring-fence a little bit of the tax dollars coming from this region to go into the infrastructure projects and to kick start that."
On social justice, police reform, racism, and violence
Thousands marched through streets in Cincinnati – and even some suburbs and rural areas – this spring and summer, demanding racial justice and law enforcement reform. In some cases, the protests devolved into civil unrest and riots, including in downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine.
Cincinnati is a city uniquely positioned to discuss these issues, following unrest in 2001 and the subsequent Collaborative Agreement between the city, the Fraternal Order of Police, American Civil Liberties Union, and Black United Front.
Chabot introduced the Safer Communities Act this year, which would require the federal government to use the Collaborative as a guidepost for federal guidance on police-community relations. It added a couple other provisions.
"There are a few bad cops out there. Most of them are great and work hard to keep us safe, but there are a few bad cops and we don’t want them moving from one location to another. So their disciplinary records need to be available so other communities know not to hire police officers that are going to be a problem," Chabot said Monday, calling for additional police resources as well.
The candidates agree that Cincinnati can be a national model.
"At the federal level, we need a lot of the principals and policies that we’ve learned here that do work – and other municipalities that have been on the edge of this, like Cincinnati as well," Schroder said."But we’re never done learning, and so we do need to continue to respond to find opportunities to even build and further refine."
"We have a difference in up to 25 years [life expectancy], depending on what zip code you're born in in this district, and that's not OK, that's crazy," Schroder said. "I think any elected officials need to understand that when you're working to make improvements [in things like infant mortality rates], not only look at the overall rate but look at the difference in races so we're closing the gap."
Chabot said racism needed to be a community discussion.
"I certainly think there's racism in this community and every community, and it's something we should strive to improve," he said. "I think we have made tremendous progress – certainly over my life – but we have got a ways to go and we need to bring every community together as much as possible."
"The rioting and looting and burning, not only should that not happen, but our leadership should denounce that and speak out against it," he added.
Cities like Cincinnati continue recording record or near-record violence in 2020. In fact, Cincinnati is outpacing recent homicide numbers.
When it comes to gun legislation, the candidates differ again.
"Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction of a lot of people when you have a shooting is that you need more gun control laws and, unfortunately that doesn't make us safer in communities," Chabot said. "The people that are affected adversely are the law-abiding citizens, the people who follow the law and the new gun laws, but they're not the threat. The threat is the people who don't follow the laws – we call them criminals."
Chabot said that after the Parkland shooting, he worked with FOP Lodge 69 president Dan Hils to introduce a bill directing money to schools for school resource officers, teacher training on warning signs in students, and things like metal detectors.
Schroder said she supports "common sense gun reforms," like expanded background checks.
"One thing I like to say is an analogy to cars," she said. "We had cars for a little bit before seatbelts were out and when evidence came out that they would reduce car fatalities, being pro-seatbelt was not being anti-car ownership. These things can co-exist and we can simultaneously support gun ownership and gun safety."
On bipartisanship and political tenor
The candidates also agree that Washington – and the nation as a whole – have become too partisan and polarized.
"I’m really committed to being part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is this group you can only join with a member of the other party," Schroder said.
Chabot pointed out his past record of working across the aisle.
"That’s the way I’ve always operated in Congress," he said. "Every time I’ve introduced a piece of legislation, I get a Democratic co-sponsor."
It will be up to you to decide who tackles the major issues facing our nation – and the 1st Congressional District – on November 3rd.