Mark Kelly, a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2020, was in Flagstaff this week as he tours the state just prior to the election season getting into full swing.
Kelly -- a former Navy pilot who flew during the First Gulf War, an astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords -- is currently the only Democrat running for the senate seat in the upcoming election.
He will face Senator Martha McSally, who is serving in the seat once held by John McCain. McSally was appointed to the position by Gov. Doug Ducey after she lost the election for Arizona’s other senate seat to Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
While in Flagstaff, the candidate for senate held a rally at Collins Irish Pub and met with Mayor Coral Evans about the issues facing the city and its residents.
Kelly said the goal of the trip is to visit every county and congressional district to learn what issues are the most pressing for voters. And from what he has heard so far, at the top of that list is health care.
“It is the issue I hear over and over again from voters,” Kelly said. “Prescription drug prices are so high for certain kinds of medications and some of them seem to just go in one direction, which is up. Deductibles and premiums are often unaffordable for middle class families -- these issues affect people every single day.”
Kelly said he does not support movements to transition the country to a single payer health care system or Medicare for All, both of which have gained more prominence within segments of the Democratic Party.
Kelly said many people in Arizona and across the country get their insurance from their employer and are happy with that arrangement. It might not be perfect, but he said the idea of moving those people on to a government-run plan is not practical.
Instead, he believes the current system should be improved to make sure everybody has health care at a reasonable price, reimplementing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.
Kelly said his views of the health insurance system partially come out of the aftermath of the attempted assassination of his wife.
In 2011, a gunman shot then-Rep. Giffords and 18 other people, six of whom died, during a public event. Giffords survived but faced a long road to recovery.
“It’s not an easy road for anybody, but it’s especially not easy if you don’t have good health care coverage. We were fortunate.” Kelly said. “A lot of families are not [as fortunate] in that situation and it can be devastating.”
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He added the incident helped shape his views on guns. Kelly said he is a lifelong gun owner, and that has not changed, but he suggested firearms are too easy to obtain for some segments of the population such as convicted felons. One solution to that could be passing universal background checks, Kelly said.
“If we strengthened these laws where they’re the weakest and also passed some stronger legislation, we would save people’s lives,” Kelly said.
When it comes to the issue of uranium mining, Kelly said he does not believe it is appropriate for mining to be done near the Grand Canyon and added that he understands the dangers posed by radiation.
“As an astronaut, I was a radiation worker myself,” Kelly said. “So I understand what it’s like to deal with radiation affecting my body. You could even watch as you close your eyes at night and it was dark, you could watch gamma particles fly through your retina and they’re flying through the whole body.”
Astronauts have higher rates of cancer because of this, and Kelly said that is the case for people who live around or near abandoned uranium mines in northern Arizona.
“The government needs to address this and clean them up and make sure we're not winding up with radioactive material getting into our water supply,” Kelly said. “And I certainly don’t think we should be mining uranium in the Grand Canyon. You know the Grand Canyon is a treasure not only for the state of Arizona but also for this planet.”
Kelly said his views on climate change were also influenced by his time in space.
“You really get a sense that we live on an island and we have no place else to go, so we really need to do the best job we possibly can to take care of this planet,” Kelly said.
He explained that between his first and fourth space flight 10 years later, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation were clearly visible.
Kelly said Arizona needs to move toward using more renewable energy, particularly solar, although he added he does not support the proposed Green New Deal.
Updated for correction at 10:45 a.m. on May 17.