UPDATE (with video): Noem and Varilek spar over ag issuesLarge Dakotafest crowd sees congresswoman and challenger exchange ideas and barbs.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
The stalled farm bill was the major issue during the first debate between Rep. Kristi Noem and her challenger, Matt Varilek, Wednesday at Dakotafest in Mitchell.
Noem, a freshman Republican, and Varilek, a Democrat in his first run for office, sparred over the legislation, which has passed in the Senate but has yet to come to a vote in the full House. Varilek sought to cast blame on Noem for that, saying she is working behind the scenes to bring it to the floor.
“Folks, I’ll tell you, Washington, D.C., is a wreck,” Noem said. “It is a wreck.”
“I share your frustration with the my-way-or-the-highway approach in Washington these days,” Varilek said.
The candidates also fielded audience questions on Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), the estate tax, ethanol and biofuels, campaign donations, tax cuts, cap and trade, and other ag issues.
Hundreds of people packed the open-air tent where the debate was held, and an overflow crowd stood around the edges of the tent.
At the end, the candidates clashed over Medicare, with Varilek claiming Noem was working to end it or force people to pay more, while Noem said she wants to preserve a program that faces severe fiscal challenges. But the farm bill returned to the forefront time and time again, with Varilek referring to it at every opportunity.
He said he would work for “progress” in Congress and getting a farm bill done would be a major part of that.
“The farm bill is always important for South Dakota because we are a farm state,” Varilek said. “It’s even more important because we have a drought.”
He said Noem claims to have more influence than a typical freshman member of Congress, but has been unable to use it on this bill.
“That’s because the House leadership refuses to bring it up, and our one member of Congress is a member of that leadership,” Varilek said. “She can’t convince (Speaker) John Boehner to bring it to a vote.”
Noem said she wants to see a farm bill passed and is striving to see that happen. She said she hopes to see it voted on and passed before the election.
Noem said the “No. 1 thing” people tell her they want is a strong safety net in the farm bill.
She also said reforms in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program, are needed. House Republicans want to trim $16 billion over a decade from the program, she said, but Democrats want to continue to fund a program that has grown out of control.
“They’re holding our ag producers hostage and wanting their demands met in the farm bill,” Noem said. “That’s why I voted no on adjournment.”
She said she was trying to be a voice of reason in Congress on government’s free-wheeling fiscal ways.
“We have to realize this country is going bankrupt and we can’t keep spending and spending,” Noem said.
Varilek said he believes the cuts proposed in the House version will deny food to people who truly need it, including kids.
“I think that goes too far,” he said.
Noem said she wanted Congress to remain in Washington in August instead of taking the five-week break that Congress is on now. But even though the break happened, Noem said she is working to convince her fellow lawmakers to vote for the farm bill and will be “leading the charge” when she returns to Congress.
Varilek said Noem was pressured to follow the lead of the House GOP leadership and cited a newspaper story that claimed that. He said she was working for GOP leaders, not for South Dakota.
Noem denied that.
“There was so much spin on that story I’m surprised Matt didn’t fall from his chair,” she said to hoots from her supporters.
Noem said she has worked to cut spending and repeal “Obamacare” while trying to make government more responsive to its citizens.
“This Obama administration has been hostile toward agriculture,” she said. Its policies and practices have shown that, she said, and her opponent is in favor of those programs.
“You’ll see in this discussion two very different viewpoints of the view of government,” Noem said.
She said Varilek wants to continue to tax and spend more and favors “more of a government-controlled society” while she trusts people to make their own decisions. Government needs to be reduced, not expanded, she said, especially in a time of economic downturn.
“We don’t have a taxing problem in this country,” Noem said. “We have a spending problem.”
While the two differed on several issues, they also agreed on issues during the one-hour debate.
Both said they favor protecting the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to ensure more biofuels, such as corn used to produce ethanol, remain a factor in the energy industry.
“The RFS has been very important to South Dakota’s economy because ethanol has been very important to South Dakota,” Varilek said.
He said there has been some talk of temporarily “relaxing” the rules, but he said he is wary of such a claim.
“I wouldn’t trust them when they tell you that,” Varilek said. “I would stand up strong for the RFS and explain why those opponents are wrong on that issue.”
Noem said she favors preserving the RFS, but also wants to take a bigger look at the whole issue.
“There are a lot of people who are suffering in that same way right now,” she said. “I believe we need to have an American energy plan. We need to quit relying on the Middle East to fuel our trucks and tractors as we got to work.”
Both said they support increased use of biotechnology in agriculture. Noem said it has changed the industry and helps keep families on their land. It is also an example of how private businesses are leading the way to success, she said.
“A lot of times people think the government is the answer to everything” Noem said, when in her view it sometimes gets in the way or even slows things down.
“I think biotechnology is very important,” Varilek said.
But he said it’s a “false choice” to say that government cannot play a key role.
“They should go hand in hand,” Varilek said. “SDSU, which is sponsoring this debate, is a great example of that.”
Both said livestock producers deserve the same kind of safety net as grain producers.
“The best way we can do that for producers is to get a five-year farm bill done,” Noem said. “The House also stepped up and did something extra. Our livestock guys deserve to be covered.
Varilek said opening up CRP acres and livestock buy-back programs have been good steps. But he took another chance to point out the farm bill has not been passed, and to jab Noem for it not being done.
“The House has taken action,” Noem said. “We saw the drought. We saw how tough it would be. We’re waiting for the Senate and the president to decide it’s imperative for them to get this done.”
Both said they favor preserving the Conservation Reserve Program, which is popular with farmers, ranchers, hunters and wildlife supporters, and said they back working to keep younger farmers on their land, tiling programs in the “Prairie Pothole” region and the Country of Origin Labeling program.
But the candidates also took shots at each other.
Varilek said Noem has changed her position on bringing the farm bill to a vote and did so again during the debate.
He said she signed a letter backing a “discharge petition” that would bring the bill to a vote. Noem has said her name only appeared on a draft of the letter and not on the final version. On Wednesday, she said she will explore all options to get a vote on the bill in September.
Noem claimed Varilek has spent years pushing for a national energy tax, and a handout from her campaign moments before the debate started referred to him as “Cap-and-Tax Matt.” It pointed to the fact he spoke at a global warming meeting in Morocco in 2001 and labeled him an “environmental activist.”
Varilek said it was a distortion of his record.
“It’s false, folks,” he said.
Varilek said Noem has failed to get “her fellow tea party” members to vote for the farm bill. Noem has said she is not a member of the tea party, but it is a label Varilek has tried to stick to her throughout the campaign.
They also sparred over Noem’s Agriculture Committee attendance record, an issue Varilek and South Dakota Democrats have tried to use for several months. He showed a sheet of papers showing the comments of other South Dakota representatives made in Ag Committee meetings; Noem’s was less than a full page.
She fired back at the charge.
“I’ve shown up every single day for South Dakota agriculture,” Noem said.
She said she was actually at “many of the meetings” or was in other meetings, working or spending time lobbying fellow lawmakers or talking with South Dakotans who were in Washington.
“Every good speech isn’t given in front of a camera,” Noem said.
Varilek said Noem has taken $70,000 from big oil for her campaign.
“They are funding her campaign, they are funding some of the Tshirts that are here at this event,” Varilek said, which drew boos and hisses from some Noem supporters, “I won’t take a dime from big oil.”
“If I’m friends with big oil, someone forgot to tell them,” Noem responded, since they have attacked her stances on issues. She said has taken “some donations” but said Varilek has as well. He shook his head at that statement.
They differed on the estate tax, dubbed “the death tax” by opponents and most Republicans.
“Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to grow up and farm with my dad,” Noem said, telling a bit of her family history. Her father was 49 when he was killed in a farm accident when she was in college, and she said “death taxes” hurt the family’s ability to do business for a decade.
“It was devastating for us,” she said, and it helped start her interest in politics and government.
Varilek also offered a brief biography, introducing his mother, who raised him as a single mother who struggled with money. He said he delivered newspapers, washed dishes and cooked burgers, while also working on farms to pick rock and “ride the bean bar” to spray herbicides.
“Your family should never have to have gone through what you went through,” he said. But Varilek said while the estate tax should be kept at a high rate, he does not favor abolishing it as Noem does. “She wants to defend even those at the very top, the Donald Trumps,” he said. “I don’t support a death tax,” Noem said. “I don’t think death should be a taxable event.” Noem said President Obama’s tax proposals would cost 2,200 jobs in South Dakota. “That would be devastating,” she said. “We need a flat system and a fair system. We need to get the government out of the business of picking winners and losers.” Varilek responded to that. “We should pick ethanol as a winner, we should pick wind as a winner,” he said.
Varilek said Noem criticized then-Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin at the 2010 Dakotafest debate for not holding town halls but has not had a sterling record in that area herself.
“My opponent has chosen not to hold town halls on agriculture issues,” he said. “Now we see what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.”
“That’s absolutely not true,” Noem replied.
She said she lives here and raises her children in the state and holds meetings while also being very accessible.
“People know they can talk to me. They can look in the phone book and find me,” Noem said. “The fact that he makes those claims doesn’t make them true. We’ve been having those town halls all along.”
When asked to point out town halls she has held recently, her campaign said there were two on July 13, in Bison and Buffalo, two small towns in extreme northwestern South Dakota.
They waged their final verbal battle over Medicare.
Varilek said Noem favored a plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to “privatize Medicare.”
“Which I think is a terrible idea,” he said. “That’s a terrible idea for South Dakota.”
“I would never do anything to harm the program,” Noem said.
She said she favors a proposal that will not alter Medicare for people 55 or older while others will be offered a choice to stay on “traditional Medicare or move to a new program.”
“It is something that is going to drive down the cost of health care,” Noem said. She said President Obama wants to take “$700 billion out of Medicare” and stood by that number when the Varilek side protested. “It does,” she said. “I don’t think Medicare should be used as a piggyback to pay for an entitlement program this president wants.” Varilek said he is committed to preserving the program. “I’m in this race because we have to make sure Medicare is around for all of us,” he said.
People packed the South Dakota State University tent on a hot latesummer afternoon for the debate, while temperatures soared into the 90s. Veteran WNAX radio newsman Jerry Oster was the moderator. At one point, when Noem supporters tried for the second time to boo and shout down Varilek as he commented, Oster asked for silence.
“You wanted a debate,” he said.
It was the first of four scheduled debates for the House candidates. Noem said last week she would not debate at the State Fair, alleging that the sponsor, the South Dakota Farmers Union, is biased in favor of Democrats.
Varilek said he wants more debates, a point he made during the Dakotafest forum and in interviews with journalists afterward.
Former Sen. George McGovern, who has long maintained a home in Mitchell, was introduced by Oster and drew applause, including from both candidates. Varilek supporters offered a standing ovation from their side of the tent.