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From NASA astronaut to 2020 U.S. Senate candidate: Mark Kelly visits ASU's Tempe campus

The Senate hopeful discussed his platform and his plans for 2020 with ASU students


Then-candidate Sen. Mark Kelly, speaks with ASU's Young Democrats club on Friday, April 19, 2019, in Tempe, Arizona.

Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 2020, wants to help achieve affordable health care for all, combat climate change, and reduce the current cost of pursuing higher education, he said during an event on ASU's Tempe campus.

Kelly, who was brought to campus by the Young Democrats at ASU, spoke to students at an event held in Discovery Hall. The event served as an avenue for Kelly to talk about his campaign with over 50 students who were in attendance. 

David Huff, the president of Young Democrats at ASU and a junior studying political science and biological life sciences, said the organization brought Kelly to campus as part of an effort to start informing people of the 2020 elections.

"Especially early on, since it's not an election year, it's important that we are interacting with the U.S. Senate candidate," Huff said.

With all of the attention surrounding the 2020 presidential election, Huff said the club aims to raise awareness around the U.S. Senate races too, which are also being held in 2020. He said the group also wanted to provide students with the opportunity to speak with candidates like Kelly face-to-face.

While waiting for Kelly to come, Jahaziel Felix, a freshman studying political science who attended the event, said he was very excited to see what Kelly had to say because he felt connected to his platform.

"I'm really passionate about climate change," Felix said. "I think that Mark Kelly is definitely the senator who, using science and using his background with the scientific field, will be fighting for common sense climate change reform."

Climate change was one of the main elements of Kelly's presentation. He cited his time as a combat pilot in the Navy as a catalyst for his passion for the issue, sharing an anecdote about when he flew over the Amazon River and saw massive deforestation. 

That, along with carbon emissions, is what Kelly said he sees as a problem for the environment. Kelly added that he is a "believer that at some point, we've got to start taxing carbon."

Although Kelly hasn't held a role in public office before, he said he has always been exposed to public service. Kelly said both his parents were police officers, allowing him to see from a young age the impact public servants can have on their communities. In addition, his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2012.

A key moment for Kelly in terms of pursuing a career in politics, he said, was the 2011 incident when his wife was near-fatally shot at an event in Tucson.

"More than anything else in my life, that one day, that one incident changed my life forever," Kelly said, adding that it showed "how we can successfully collaborate and work through hard problems if we do it as a team." 

After the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2013, Kelly and his wife co-founded the Giffords organization, which is dedicated to uniting people from all backgrounds with the goal of reducing gun violence.

Kelly also cited healthcare as a critical issue that inspired him to enter the political scene. He said, in the past, a mother of a child with autism expressed her concerns that her son would lose coverage in the future due to his pre-existing condition. 

However, he said he does not believe in Medicare for All.

"I'm a little concerned if we were to go and tell 156 million people, 'Don't worry, trust the government, we're going to take away what you have and we're going to give you something better,'" he said. "Probably not going to work really well."

Kelly also said that several plans under Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, were not ideal because they decreased competition in certain states.

While Felix said he agreed with Kelly's ideas regarding climate change, he said he was disappointed with Kelly's stance on the Medicare for All proposal. Felix said he is not currently on a health insurance plan because he makes too much to qualify for Medicare, but earns too little for private insurance. 

"I would love to hear him try to encourage Medicare for All," Felix said.

Kelly also discussed the high cost of college as a critical issue. While the cost of post-secondary education wasn't a problem for Kelly personally because he attended a service academy, he said he does not remember the cost of college being so high in general.

"I never remember it being something that was out of reach, or where my brother or my parents were going to have to go into debt in multiples of what their annual salary was," he said. 

The price of college has increased dramatically over the years. According Forbes, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of attending a four-year college is a little over $104,000 for all four years combined. The same report said that the cost, adjusted for inflation, of attending a four-year university back in 1989 after four years was just under $53,000.

Kelly said the high costs of college can cause students to specifically pick a career that would help pay off their debt, which he said he does not believe in. He said he wants students to get an education and be able to do what they want to do, free from financial burdens.

Read more: University tuition increases, overhaul receive criticism from students

In an interview after the event, Felix said that while he was disappointed with some of Kelly's stances, he "still thinks (Kelly) is the best choice." He also said that he is very excited for the 2020 elections.

If elected, Kelly would replace current Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), who was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to replace former senator Jon Kyl. Kyl was previously appointed to fill the late Arizona Sen. John McCain's seat after he passed away in August 2018, but stepped down from the role in December. 

McSally and her two predecessors are all Republicans, meaning that Kelly's victory – or that of another Democratic candidate – would reflect a notable change in Arizona's representation in Congress. 

"I'm looking forward to volunteering on some campaigns for candidates I believe in, like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Mark Kelly," Felix said. 

Reach the reporter at and follow @michelle_zhao23 on Twitter. 

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