Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones and Republican Tony Gonzales both condemned groups associated with violence including the Ku Klux Klan and MS-13 during their first live debate on Thursday in the race to represent Texas’ 23rd Congressional District.

But Jones challenged Gonzales for being evasive when asked if the KKK should be considered a terrorist group in a recent interview with a local online talk show, The Carpenters Apprentice.

“Politics is ridiculous. To ask a Mexican-American … if I condemn the KKK. Of course, I condemn the KKK. Of course, I condemn terrorist organizations like MS-13 and Antifa,” Gonzales told debate moderator and KSAT anchor Steve Spriester. He called on Jones to condemn Antifa, which is more of a loose movement of far-left anti-fascism activists that does not have a clearly defined leader or structure.

Spriester asked Jones if she condemns international criminal gang MS-13 and Antifa.

“Absolutely, I think any organization that engages in political violence like that should be condemned,” Jones said.

Gonzales said there were more important things to talk about.

“This is about the district; don’t get distracted,” he said. “Is race an issue? Yes, but we shouldn’t be talking about this, we should be talking about the people that are dying of COVID, the families that are broken.”

During the presidential debate last Tuesday, President Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists for inciting violence. Two days later he condemned “all white supremacists.”

The passionate debate between Jones and Gonzales in Uvalde was largely free of the constant interruptions seen during the presidential debate, but each candidate pressed hard for rebuttal time.

Jones, who wants to protect and expand the Affordable Care Act, repeatedly steered her answers on a variety of topics toward health care, pointing out that Gonzales wants to dismantle the ACA, which protects people with pre-existing conditions from getting denied health insurance.

Gonzales has been asked over and over what his plan would be to cover such patients, Jones said. “He doesn’t have an answer.”

Spriester asked Gonzales to be specific about his plan: “Do you support the Supreme Court overthrowing the Affordable Care Act?”

“I support the next version of ACA to have pre-existing conditions embedded in it,” Gonzales said. “I have a pre-existing condition. Why would I want to take that away from myself?”

On the issue of border security, Gonzales said he supports the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico “where it makes sense” and use technology or other methods where it doesn’t.

On Thursday, he said he wants to make legal immigration to the United States easier.

A recent Gonzales campaign ad that included a fake border patrol agent called for securing U.S. borders, finishing the wall, and ending so-called sanctuary city policies.

Finishing the wall would be a $15 billion investment – money that would be taken away from the military, Jones said. “That border wall steals from our military bases,” she said. “When I talk to leaders on the border, they don’t want a border wall. … They want more bridges. They want infrastructure that is actually going to allow them to be economically competitive.”

Gonzales agrees that there should be better infrastructure at the border and added that the Department of Homeland Security needs more resources to patrol it, but it wouldn’t come out of the military’s budget.

He used his rebuttal time to criticize Jones’ lack of travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

“You can’t Zoom your way through being a representative,” said Gonzales, who has been traveling across the district to attend in-person events all year. “I’ve done it safely.”

Jones said she will continue to follow the directive from health experts to limit her travel and in-person interactions.

“Unfortunately, my opponent has put his political ambitions over the medical guidance of these experts,” she said.

The two candidates are slated to debate again on Oct. 13, the start of early voting, though details are pending. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...