James Comer and Joe Cunningham have several things in common — initials, Kentucky roots, and current job as members of Congress — to name a few.
And, while Comer, a Republican, represents Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes Caldwell County, and Cunningham, a Democrat, and Lyon County native, represents South Carolina’s 1st District, they also share a common interest in working across the aisle to get things done in Washington, D.C.
That desire brought them both to Paducah last week to participate in a virtual event coordinated by the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce as part of its public policy series aimed at providing the business community access to legislative leaders and information on key issues.
The event was part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Congressional Exchange, which works to foster bipartisanship and encourage relationship-building between members of the opposite party. The exchange includes having participants personally visit the other person’s district.
“I think it’s good to visit each other’s district,” said Comer, who grew up in rural Monroe County. “Obviously, Charleston is different than Paducah, so I’m looking forward to going there and learning what issues are important to him.
“I just want to demonstrate, and I think Joe does, too, the fact that we have to be working together in a bipartisan manner. It can’t be Republicans and Democrats fighting like cats and dogs every day and expect to get anything done.”
“It starts with relationships and friendships whether it be in the House members’ gym or prayer breakfasts or other spots where Democrats and Republicans get together and get a better feel for what issues are important to them and where we might be able to seek compromise and build a consensus,” he said.
Chamber President Sandra Wilson helped direct the discussion Friday during the 45-minute session, which was live streamed from the Commerce Center. Following that, the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau staff took the congressmen on a walking tour through downtown with stops that included the National Quilt Museum, among others.
Several of the discussion topics during the virtual event were related to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which has required many Americans to adjust to working remotely.
“What we have to focus on in my office and in working with friends like Joe Cunningham, is we have to invest in rural broadband,” Comer said.
“One of the things that we’ve realized through remote education and through Zoom and teleconferencing is there’s a discrepancy in internet capacity and wireless capability and broadband in rural areas versus the more populated areas. I’m very focused on trying to get more financial assistance on the federal level.”
“This pandemic has highlighted the need for remote work,” Cunningham said.
“And, the thing is rural broadband touches all aspects of our life. Telehealth has gotten bigger and bigger to serve a lot of communities that have been underserved traditionally.
“There’s a telestroke program at the Medical University of South Carolina which saves our taxpayers tons of money using telehealth to tell if they (patients) need to be airlifted to a hospital or if their condition can be stabilized where they sit.”
Regarding the coronavirus, Cunningham noted his state has seen an uptick in positive cases.
“As we look at the number (of cases) in South Carolina, I think the metric we need to keep an eye on is the infection rate. When this money from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act increases the number of testing, naturally the cases will be up as well,” he said.
The first-term congressman said people also need to have a sense of personal and moral responsibility and, depending on their situation, such as caring for elderly parents, may need to take additional precautions beyond what the government outlines require.
Comer suggested, while acknowledging COVID-19 remains a serious threat, Kentucky needs to continue its efforts to reopen the economy.
“I would like the state of Kentucky to drastically shift gears, reopen the economy and not have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. There will be areas of the state where COVID-19 has outbreaks,” he said.
“This thing is still around and I do take it seriously, but we have to reopen the economy. I think with this economy right now, this one-size-fits-all if there’s a spike in Louisville, we need to shut down Paducah ... that makes no sense.
“I’ve been very critical of what’s going on in Frankfort. I think we can do better and I think we’re going to have to do better.”