Best, Ward debate in Blair

Mirror photo by Greg Bock / Republican candidate and current state Rep. Judy Ward and Democrat Emily Best converse before a debate organized by the Blair County Tea Party and Indivisible Blair County at the Bavarian Aid Society on Tuesday.

Candidates vying to represent the 30th District in the state Senate stood Tuesday to answer questions as two of Blair County’s often opposing political groups came together to host a candidate’s forum in Altoona.

Republican candidate and current state Rep. Judy Ward and Democrat Emily Best packed the back room at the Bavarian Aid Society to answer prepared questions as part of the Blair County Tea Party and Indivisible Blair County forum that organizers said was designed to help voters learn about their choices come Nov. 6.

“We should be able to work together,” said Blair County Tea Party President Rhonda Holland, noting that, with people sharply divided along political lines, the two groups — often at opposite sides of the issues — decided to pool their resources to host the candidates. The response — standing room only — shows the voters are engaged in this year’s election, Holland said.

“It shows people are interested in the election. It’s not a presidential election, but people are intersted in the issues,” Holland said.

The issues covered Tuesday night spanned everything from property and gun rights to health care and marijuana legalization.

Ward and Best took turns espousing their views from the pre­pared questions — some meant for both candidates and others aimed at an individual candidate.

Ward touted her experience — four years in Harrisburg as a state representative — and her ability to listen and get along with members of her own party as well as Democrats.

Best, who lives in McConnellsburg, Fulton County, said she decided to run to give voters a choice in the General Election, although she conceded more than once that it’s rare for a Democrat to run in the largely Republican 30th District.

“In the last few months, I’ve learned people are interested in having a contested race,” Best said, noting she believes working people, particularly farmers, are not represented in Harrisburg.

On the issues, the candidates’ answers often mimicked party lines, with Ward saying she prefered free markets and cautioned that over-regulation, over-taxation and over-reach by government can stifle Pennsylvania’s economy and ultimately hurt the citizens.

Ward opposes mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in health care and she opposes a two-year reprieve from a statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases. Ward stressed that she wants to see a process where ratios are recommended but not mandated, with nurses playing an integral role in developing staffing guidelines for health care facilities.

When it comes to the two-year “window of justice,” Ward said she voted against it because from talking to attorneys and judges, she believes the legislation to be unconstitutional. Ward emphasized that moving forward, Pennsylvania lawmakers must make it possible to hold the perpetrators of what she called “heinous crimes” accountable.

Best said she supports the two-year window, as does Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and said any constitutional issues could be addressed by the courts. Best said because stories of abuse have only started to emerge in the last 10 to 20 years, denying those victims recourse in the courts is simply not justice.

When it came to reducing the prison population, Ward said while it is an important issue, there is a mental health aspect to the issue that the state has to address, along with opioid abuse. Best said she favors ending or reducing cash bail in non-violent offenses and other reforms, such as reducing life sentences without parole and decriminalizing marijuana.

The two also differed on the issue of the legalization of marijuana, with Best explaining that well-regulated recreational sales of marijuana would bring in hundreds of millions in revenue and also eliminate some costs in the area of law enforcement and incarceration.

Ward disagreed, pointing to the current issues with drug abuse in Pennsyl­vania as a reason not to allow people access to another drug.

It was the opioid crisis that Ward pointed to for her reason to oppose legalization of marijuana, and on the opioid issue both candidates agreed that treatment was an imperative component of tackling the statewide problem. Both agreed part of the problem stems from societal issues, with Ward citing the breakdown of family and church values, with Best noting the limited options facing many people often lead to the abuse of drugs.

Best also pointed to drug companies and said she would like to see them held more accountable. Ward said the legislature has addressed some issues, such as doctor shopping, but said more work has to be done in regard to the opioid problem.

While Best said she would seek a severance tax on natural gas, she said she supports protecting farmers and landowners at risk because of natural gas pipelines.

Ward said she’s worked with folks, including farmers, who have been through the eminent domain process with the pipeline and said they were treated fairly. “We need to make sure the process is fair, but there is a process in place,” Ward said.

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