Democratic challenger Jim Mowrer (left) presented a contrast with U.S. Rep. Steve King's conservative approach to government during a debate last week on the campus of Buena Vista University.

Congressional debate a punch-thrower’s contest

Mowrer challenges King’s lack of military service; King backers say Democrat looked ‘desperate’


STORM LAKE — Democratic congressional candidate Jim Mowrer, an Iraq War veteran, said Congressman Steve King’s lack of military service limits his understanding of how to handle the ebola outbreak and other matters.

King, after making a point to thank Mowrer for service to country, said the Boone Democrat’s Guard duty line on a resume does not a congressman make.

The lone 4th Congressional District debate Thursday night on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake showcased a full-speed-ahead Mowrer, who repeatedly attacked King’s comments and record, and a clearly annoyed King, who at one point — when Mowrer sought to link the conservative congressman with President Barack Obama on foreign policy in the Middle East — said the evening had devolved into “never-never land.”

In the Iowa Public Television forum, the candidates quickly disagreed on the president’s response to ebola in Africa, and concerns over transmission of the potentially lethal virus to the United States.

Mowrer agrees with the Obama administration’s decision to send American troops to Africa to fight Ebola.

“I’m not afraid,” Mowrer said. “That’s why I joined the military.”

Mowrer enlisted in the Iowa National Guard following high school. His unit, the 1-133 Infantry Battalion, served a 23-month deployment in the Iraq War. Mowrer served on active duty from October 2005 to July 2007.

King, a Kiron Republican, said American troops should not be ordered into Africa to fight an “unseen enemy” in the ebola virus. They should be able to volunteer for such service, he said, adding that the deployment into ebola-rich regions could be considered a “suicide mission.”

Mowrer said King’s assessment shows he doesn’t understand the military, what it means to respect the chain of command and orders.

“That’s why Congressman King never volunteered for the military,” Mowrer said.

During the late 1960s, King was attending Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville. King drew a high number — 308 — in the Vietnam War draft lottery before leaving college without graduating in 1970. King was never called to serve in the military, but has said that he was prepared to fight for his country had he pulled a lower number.

After the debate, in an interview, Mowrer denied that he was suggesting King is a war dodger for using three student deferments during the Vietnam War.

“That’s not what I was saying,” Mowrer said. “I was saying that in the military culture, when you’re ordered to do something, you do it. There aren’t suggestions. There are orders. I’m a veteran, so I understand that when you’re ordered to do something, that’s what you do.”

Of the deferments King had at Northwest Missouri State, Mowrer said in the post-debate interview, “That’s part of his record.”

Bradley Best, associate professor of political science at Buena Vista University, said Mowrer is using military service to distinguish himself from King.

“It is a fact that in our politics, folks who put themselves in harm’s way in service to their country, they can argue from a moral high ground on lots of issues that is very difficult to combat, and I think that’s where Mr. Mowrer was headed,” Best said. “I’m not certain that he was headed at the much-deeper question about where Mr. King was earlier in his life. If he was, that might have been a very legitimate question, a very legitimate issue, to have gotten into.”

After the debate, King said he would let Mowrer’s comments on what military service means in the election stand on their own.

“I have great respect and appreciation for everyone who put on the uniform to defend our country,” King said. “But there’s also a level of honor you need to maintain. And that means tell the truth. That’s a requirement when you’re in the military, apparently not when you’re a veteran, always.”

Sharp exchanges also emerged on the issue of immigration.

Mowrer supports comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants who have built lives in the United States.

He said there should be penalties and fines and requirements for such legalized status that fall short of deportation. A decade-long corrective process for immigrants would not be amnesty, Mower said.

“Amnesty would be free and clear,” said the Boone Democrat.

King said the reform Mowrer advocates is the very definition of amnesty as it rewards the culprits of lawbreaking with their object of their offense: citizenship.

He wants to see walls erected at the United States’ southern border.

“Walls work,” King said. “That’s why they’re around the White House.”

Mowrer said King’s often-controversial comments on immigrants alienate him from other elected officials in Washington, which makes it more difficult to accumulate influence in places like the House Agriculture Committee, where Mowrer said could King have more power and do more for Iowa if he took a different approach.

King’s “national, selfish, Tea Party agenda” may very well have cost him the chairmanship of the agriculture committee, Mowrer said.

King said he served as a strong advocate for the farm bill and pointed to the success of agriculture during the last 12 years he served in Congress.

On economic issues, Mowrer supports an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.

“If you work 40 hours a week, you shouldn’t live in poverty,” Mowrer said.

King calls for the abolishment of federal income taxes and wants them replaced with a national sales tax of 23 percent.

In a strange twist, Mowrer sought to make political hay by linking King with President Obama, saying they both support arming the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, fighters whom the U.S. military often opposed previously.

King said he had never been paired for political purposes with a president he challenges every day on almost every front.

“I didn’t know it was going to be a comedy routine,” King said after the debate.

IPTV moderator Dean Borg, in a pointed question to King, asked how an “outlier” in Congress could effectively represent Iowa. King, embracing Borg’s description of him, quickly referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, “Outliers,” which chronicles the successes of people throughout history who have run against the current.

“If you read the book, you’ll understand that an outlier is a thing to be proud of,” King said. “It’s somebody that sets a standard and sets a trend. The implication in that word in common usage means that somehow that’s not conforming to the norm. But conforming is not the American way. That’s not where we have found our success. The outliers have blazed the trail for the future of this country. You can go back through the history of this country and find all kinds of outliers and many of them there are monuments to them. There won’t be one to me, and I’m not alleging that.”

King, who had threatened to pull out of the debate over what he felt were false ads from the Mowrer camp, said he didn’t regret participating.

“I think it was a just a battle that had to be fought,” King said.

King, who debated former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, his Democratic challenger, seven times in 2012, compared her favorably to Mowrer in a post-debate interview. “She’s a nicer person,” King said.

Dr. Cody Hoefert, a Rock Rapids chiropractor who is co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said Mowrer came off “desperate” in the debate, opening the door for King to separate himself in the race to Election Day.

“This was a huge win for the congressman,” Hoefert said. “Mowrer’s desperation showed through. The congressman’s complete command of the issues also showed through.”

Chase Werden, vice president of the Buena Vista University College Republicans and 2012 Carroll Kuemper Catholic High School alum, said he was surprised with the amount of bickering in the debate.

“I thought it was pretty despicable when Jim Mowrer said, ‘Well, Congressman King, you’re not a veteran and you wouldn’t know about these choices they make,’ ” Werden, a junior, said.

Werden said Mowrer’s tactic would ring false to most people in the 4th District.

“The last thing people want to hear is, ‘Well, the congressman is not a veteran. I am. So vote for me,’ ” said Werden.

Carroll County Democratic Party Co-Chairman Tim Tracy, who attended the debate, said Mowrer had King on the defensive.

“My takeaway was that Mowrer had King off-balance and frustrated most of the night,” Tracy said.

Tracy said King was visibly rolling his eyes and flopping around in his chair, signs of his discomfort with the direction of the evening.

“He couldn’t defend his record,” said Tracy, an advertising representative for Herald Publishing Co., parent company of The Jefferson Herald.

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