(From left) Chip Roy and Joseph Kopser debate at the Pearl Studio.
(From left) Chip Roy and Joseph Kopser debate at the Pearl Studio during a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

The two candidates for the 21st Congressional seat left vacant by Republican Lamar Smith’s pending retirement met on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday, offering similar themes on most economic topics but differing sharply on health care and the 2017 tax bill.

At a debate hosted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Republican Chip Roy and Democrat Joseph Kopser answered questions about the U.S. economy, transportation and infrastructure, federal regulations and taxes, immigration, and health care.

Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Richard Perez said the questions posed to the two candidates focused on issues that the chamber has brought to Washington lawmakers for years and that matter most to San Antonio’s business community.

“Transportation and immigration are bread-and-butter issues for the chamber,” he said.

Both Kopser and Roy said they want to see immigration reform in order to strengthen the nation’s workforce. Kopser said that the U.S. needs to fulfill its promise to “Dreamers,” young people covered by the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Roy, however, blamed the holdup on immigration reform on Democrats in Congress after two immigration bills failed in June.

An Army veteran and businessman, Kopser said he supports the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and condemned President Donald Trump’s announcement Monday that the United States had reached a preliminary bilateral trade agreement with Mexico, one that Canada might not be a part of.

“We know the single most dreadful word in business community when planning is uncertainty,” Kopser said of the trilateral agreement’s future. “And what we have created with the latest announcement is uncertainty.”

Roy, who has worked as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s chief of staff and more recently as vice president of strategy for conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, also supports the agreement. He said that Trump cannot and should not throw out NAFTA “unilaterally.” Whatever deal the president makes will go through Congress, and its Congress’ job to check the president, Roy said.

“In my opinion, it ought to be a trilateral deal across the entirety of North America,” he said. “We’ll see what happens with the result.”

Chip Roy.
District 21 Congressional Republican candidate Chip Roy Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

While Kopser criticized the 2017 tax cuts bill for weakening the Affordable Care Act and adding to the country’s debt, Roy reproached the bill for not going far enough to simplify the tax code. Roy would have supported the bill, but said he wished it was permanent.

“It didn’t go far enough to relieve tax pressure on families, didn’t do enough for small businesses,” Roy said.

Roy, a cancer survivor, criticized the Affordable Care Act, which he said has only hurt Americans and raised premiums. To build a health care system that works for everyone, Roy said he wants to empower doctors and use health savings accounts to spread costs, allowing high-risk insurance pools to take care of people with pre-existing conditions.

Kopser told Roy he was glad that his opponent survived his bout with cancer, and that he had access to health care. He said he did not understand how Roy could be supporting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit to eliminate Obamacare, and consequently the protections given to people with pre-existing conditions.

“We need to be insuring all Americans to prevent bankruptcy from medical decision beyond their control,” he said.

Joseph Kopser greets the crowd after the debate.
District 21 Congressional Democratic candidate Joseph Kopser Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Roy pledged his dedication to “getting the bureaucrats in Washington out of the way” to make sure federal regulations were not hampering Texas businesses. He told a story about a friend working for former governor and current U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, echoing a popular Republican conspiracy theory about a shadow government: that the “deep state” was working behind Perry’s back to get climate change regulations implemented without the secretary’s knowledge or approval.

“This is the kind of thing that a rogue, fourth state of government is doing that the founders knew could be a problem and we can get fixed,” Roy said.

Everyone agrees the country needs clean air and clean water, he said, but the federal government is not putting forth “sane” regulations.

Kopser criticized Roy’s language choice, and said there can be “smart regulations” put in place to protect and facilitate business.

“Let’s be very clear how we solve these problems,” Kopser said. “It is not through the proliferation of phrases like ‘deep state’ and ‘rogue,’ and ‘the fourth state.’ What we need to talk about is the role of government.”

Regardless of which candidate wins on Nov. 6, the new congressman will be an Austin-area resident; Smith lives in San Antonio. The 21st Congressional District encompasses parts of Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio west of Interstate 35. It then stretches to include all of Bandera, Blanco, Gillespie, Kendall, Kerr, and Real counties.

Early voting begins Oct. 22.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.