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story.lead_photo.caption Michael Kalagias, Celeste Williams and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack

A rooster crows when Celeste Williams talks.

She has a chicken coop in the backyard.

That's pretty much the extent of her campaign crowds right now.

Williams, a candidate for Congress, isn't about to hold public campaign rallies and put anyone in danger of catching the coronavirus.

"Working in health care and being a nurse practitioner, I can't take the risk of being a bad example in the community," she said.

Williams, a Democrat from Bentonville, is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers, for the 3rd Congressional District seat that he has held since 2011.

Michael Kalagias, a Libertarian, is also running to unseat Womack.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

Womack, a former Rogers mayor, said he's never missed a vote in Congress. He bought a condo in the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., so he would be close to work. Then he realized one of his Old Town neighbors is U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a fellow Republican from Rogers.

"I can literally throw a baseball from my deck to his deck," Womack said.

He'd have to clear a tree, but the congressman is nothing if not confident.

Womack said this is a very different campaign year.

"Obviously, we're in a pandemic and we've had a phenomenal amount of social unrest going on in the country, precipitated by some unfortunate occurrences in the law enforcement community," he said.

Candidates are campaigning by phone, Zoom and other virtual methods.

"You do what you can do, but you're limited," said Womack. "It cuts both ways. Challengers are limited as well. You have to resort to a more unconventional way of campaigning."

Womack said Congress has provided aid to help people get through the pandemic, and the scientific community is working 24/7 to come up with a vaccine.

Regarding social unrest, Womack said "burning, rioting and looting" go way beyond the First Amendment's guaranty of the right Americans have to peacefully assemble and express themselves.

"I think a lot of these issues are best settled by local jurisdictions," he said.

GOP STRONGHOLD

The 3rd Congressional District has been a Republican stronghold since 1967.

And Benton County, within the district, has been a Republican stronghold. Benton County is Arkansas' second-most-populous county, with an estimated population of 279,141 last year.

In 2018, Williams ran for state representative in House District 95, which is within Benton County. She lost to Austin McCollum, an incumbent Republican from Bentonville.

Williams said she figured the Democratic base in Benton County amounted to about 18% of voters, but she got 35% of the total vote in the race for state representative.

"You've got to be pathologically optimistic" to run as a Democrat in Benton County, she said.

The political demographics of Benton County appear to be changing. The percentage of people who cast Democratic ballots in Benton County's primary elections jumped from 11% in 2012 to 42% this year (an increase from 2,955 to 18,199 people voting a Democratic ballot in the primaries).

Williams said campaigning in person was important in 2018 to change the Republican narrative of what a Democrat is.

"If you don't have the balance to change the Republican definition of what a Democrat is, then you've lost already," she said. "I am a reasonable human being who cares deeply about my community, the future of my children, and I have very different policy ideas than my opponent."

Changing that narrative is more difficult -- but not impossible -- during a pandemic, Williams said.

She's still a front-line health-care worker during this pandemic, and her husband is an emergency room nurse who recently tested positive for covid-19.

"This really affirms my view that in this time and with the jobs of myself and my husband, it is important to follow public health guidelines to keep people safe," Williams said in a text message.

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was implemented, Williams said she saw a large group of new patients who couldn't afford health care before.

She said Womack has voted 54 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans don't have a comprehensive health care plan with which to replace it.

Williams said she went to Washington in 2017 with a group from the Arkansas Nurses Association to lobby lawmakers.

"I felt like they did not have an understanding of the struggles of everyday Arkansans and that I had a deeper understanding of the consequences of policy and the consequences of bad policy," she said.

"She's adding all the votes that have taken place that involve the Affordable Care Act," said Womack. "When Obamacare was introduced to this country, it was an overreach of the federal government. It was the takeover of a health-care system.

"Against all kinds of promises, it hasn't lowered costs," he said. "She's absolutely right: I have put a target on Obamacare, and I will continue to do so when I think the federal government has gone beyond its constitutional authority."

Womack said Republicans want a "patient-centered program, not a single-payer, government-knows-all program."

"We've had many attempts by several members of our caucus that have introduced bills that in part or in whole would serve as a replacement to Obamacare," he said.

DEBT, OTHER ISSUES

In an Oct. 13 debate aired on Arkansas PBS, Kalagias addressed the national debt.

"Our nation is $27 trillion in debt," he said. "Our entire economy is only $19 trillion. The interest alone on that debt is over $300 billion every year. That's not sustainable."

If the problem isn't fixed, Kalagias said, there won't be enough money to adequately fund other things, including education, Medicare, Social Security and national defense.

He said the debt has continued to increase whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the White House and Congress.

In 2017, Womack and the vast majority of Republicans voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Womack was chairman of the House Budget Committee at the time.

Williams said it was a tax cut for the wealthy.

"I think it is reprehensible that Congressman Womack, as chair of the budget committee, voted to give billionaires and multinational corporations a huge tax cut and now supports a budget that wants to cut Medicare and Social Security, and the people relying on those services paid for that already," Williams said.

"Ms. Williams' comments demonstrate how little she knows about the fiscal stability of these programs," Womack said. "They both face major cuts if Congress fails to act. My budget called for reforms that would extend the life of both Medicare and Social Security. If I wanted to cut these programs, I'd do precisely what Democrats would do -- nothing."

In the Arkansas PBS debate, Womack said the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act helped lift Arkansas' "lowest earners" out of poverty. He said the act almost doubled the standard income-tax deduction and did double the child tax credit.

Womack said there were no cuts to Social Security in his committee's 2018 budget for fiscal 2019.

"We just simply made a change in our budget that would make it impossible for you to collect unemployment compensation and disability at the same time," he said on the television program. "That's the only Social Security change, OK? Let's be specific. And on Medicare, very simple change. Elevate the age of eligibility from 65 to 67, equalize it with Social Security. I will argue that if you can't make some small change in entitlement programs, then how can you tackle the bigger issues?"

Social Security and Medicare were developed in the 1930s and 1960s when life expectancy was lower, Womack said in a telephone interview. Now people are living longer, and the cost of those programs exceeds the revenue coming in.

Kalagias said Womack has repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling.

"He'll talk about how we need to do something about the debt, but he never does anything about it," Kalagias said in an interview. "That's one of the main reasons I'm running: He says one thing and does the opposite. We need someone who's honest."

"What Mr. Kalagias is saying on paper may look correct," Womack said. "He is correct I have voted to raise the debt ceiling. The alternative is to impose massive cuts on programs that Americans rely on -- Social Security, Medicare. ... For Mr. Kalagias to sit back and armchair quarterback decisions I've made ... is a little bit disingenuous because it does not fully explain the complex issue."

Seventy percent of the budget is on "autopilot" based on those programs, Womack said.

Kalagias ran against Womack in 2018 and received 2.57% of the vote. Josh Mahony, a Democrat, got 32.63% of the vote that year, but Womack received 64.74% to be reelected.

Kalagias said criminal justice reform is another major issue for him. He wants to eliminate civil asset forfeiture, no-warrant searches and seizures, and no-knock "raids."

"We don't believe in militarizing the police either," he said.

But Libertarians do believe in gun rights.

"We believe the government has no right in infringe on your right to bear arms and protect yourself," Kalagias said.

EDUCATION, WORKERS

Besides health care, education and fair wages are primary issues for Williams.

"As a proud product of public schools, I believe a world-class public education must be available to all regardless of ZIP code, race, ethnicity or family income," she said. "Studies show investment in education leads to higher employment, reduced dependence on public assistance programs and greater tax revenue. That starts with universal pre-K, equitable funding for all K-12 public schools and students, fully funding IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], all the way to vocational training and affordable college options."

Williams said dignity must be restored to workers in America.

"No one working full time should be struggling to afford their basic necessities," she said. "We live in a community where some are doing very well, but way too many are being left behind. To improve the lives of working families, I will fight for a $15 per hour federal minimum wage that keeps up with the cost of living and includes hazard pay for essential workers during times of crisis; ending the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers and workers with disabilities; protecting the rights of contract farmers to negotiate fair pay; and, securing universal health care and paid sick and parental leave for all."

Last year, Womack voted against the Raise the Wage Act, which would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour over six years.

In a news release at the time, Womack said it was "an unprecedented anti-jobs, anti-worker minimum-wage bill." He said it was a "heavy-handed Washington mandate" that would "eviscerate jobs and kill Main Street businesses."

The Congressional Budget Office said raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would boost the wages of 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 per hour, and another 10 million workers who earn slightly more than $15 an hour might see their wages rise as well.

"But 1.3 million other workers would become jobless," according to the budget office's median estimate. "There is a two-thirds chance that the change in employment would be between about zero and a decrease of 3.7 million workers. The number of people with annual income below the poverty threshold in 2025 would fall by 1.3 million."

U.S. House elections occur every other year. Members of Congress are paid $174,000 per year. The general election is Nov. 3.

3rd Congressional District candidate information and bios.
A map showing the location of the U.S. 3rd Congressional District.
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