Democratic congressional candidates differ on Gaza, health care in forum

Despite interruptions from anti-Israel protesters, Democratic congressional candidates in two primarily suburban districts shared their opinions on health care, campaign finance reform and other issues Wednesday night at Naperville’s Nichols Library.

But the ongoing war in Gaza was on everyone’s mind because of the protesters who repeatedly harangued the incumbents on the dais for supporting Israel in its fight against Hamas. Several particularly argumentative protesters were escorted out by police.

The forum, which drew about 100 audience members, featured candidates running in the 6th and 11th districts in the March 19 primary. It was hosted by the Democratic Party of DuPage County and other local party groups.

In the Democratic primary for the 6th District seat, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove is being challenged by political newcomer Mahnoor Ahmad of Oakbrook Terrace and returning candidate Charles Hughes of Chicago.

In the Democratic primary for the 11th District seat, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Naperville is being challenged by Qasim Rashid, also of Naperville.

All five candidates participated in the roughly two-hour forum, but Foster left after about an hour, saying he had another public event to attend.

The candidates were divided on several issues, including whether they would accept campaign donations from corporations and other special interests.

While Casten and Foster have received millions from such groups through the years, both said they support campaign finance reform. Conversely, Ahmad, Rashid and Hughes said they’d refuse any donations from such groups.

“I’m 100% people funded,” Rashid bragged.

The candidates also differed on whether a single-payer health care plan − often called “Medicare for all” − is the best way to keep Americans healthy. Ahmad and Rashid backed the concept, while Casten and Hughes did not. Foster had left by the time that question was posed by the moderator.

The war in Gaza came up in the questions, too -- including whether the candidates would support a cease-fire and oppose future aid to Israel until it stops killing civilians.

Rashid called for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire but also said Hamas and its allies should release its hostages. He then went on to say Israel should end illegal settlements in the region and release Palestinian prisoners.

Ahmad called Israel’s actions “a full-blown genocide.” Hughes said the U.S. should end military aid to Israel.

Foster said he’s been critical of Israeli government policy but insisted it has a right to retaliate against the terrorists who perpetrated the deadly Oct. 7 attacks. Casten was similarly critical of those attacks, noting they targeted civilians. Casten also said people can support Israel but be critical of its government, just as someone can support the Palestinian people while opposing Hamas.

The protesters interrupted Casten and Foster nearly every time they began answering questions. Some hurled insults at them, while others led like-minded audience members in chants about the Gaza conflict.

The 6th District includes parts of Cook and DuPage counties. The 11th District encompasses portions of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will, DeKalb and Boone counties.

The winner of the 6th District primary will face Republican Niki Conforti of Glen Ellyn in the November general election. In the 11th District, Susan Hathaway-Altman of Geneva, Jerry Evans of Warrenville and Kent Mercado of Bartlett are running for the Republican nomination.

The Democratic candidates for Illinois' 6th Congressional District, from left: Mahnoor Ahmad, Sean Casten and Charles Hughes.
The Democratic candidates for Illinois' 11th Congressional District are Bill Foster, left, and Qasim Rashid.
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