Senator Jack Reed called it a Rhode Island Town Hall. The event was held in the East Providence High School auditorium and put the entire Rhode Island congressional delegation, including Reed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline in the hot seat for about 90 minutes of questions from sometimes angry and confrontational constituents.
At issue was the administration of Donald Trump and the potential loss of civil rights, social and economic justice programs and environmental protections, among many other concerns. Of special interest were the last few cabinet nominees the Senate needs to decide on and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Before the Town Hall began, Jane Tucker, of Indivisible RI, explained that the focus was to be on Jack Reed, since this was his first open meeting with constituents since Trump’s inauguration. The message Tucker wanted to send was simple: Block the Trump agenda by any means necessary.
Georgia Hollister Isman, of the Working Families Party of RI, explained that the best way to hold politicians accountable, even politicians you mostly agree with, is to show up at events like the Town Hall. Actions like this across the country “are throwing the White House off balance,” said Hollister Isman, “It’s not something they expect or know how to deal with.”
Each member of the delegation presented some short opening remarks, which those interested can view below:
After introductions 18 people out of the nearly 1000 who braved the cold and the snow were able to ask their questions or make their statements. Below is all the video. I’ve tried to summarize the questions somewhat and present some of the more interesting replies.
First up, a man asks, “What are each of you going to do to change the power in Washington?”
In answer to a question from a woman about the threatened Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Jack Reed pledged, “We are going to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act… We will not allow the repeal of the ACA.” This was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
Jack Reed was admonished for praising recently confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a racist, by a woman reading from Jack Reed’s press release. In the release Reed said he respected Sessions despite their differing political views.
The crowd began to chant, “We need a leader, not an appeaser.” Reed seemed taken aback by the public’s reaction to what he most likely saw as boilerplate messaging.
The woman asking Reed about his statement had more to say, but was shouted down by a crowd eager to have their questions answered. Still, she managed to admonish Whitehouse, saying his, “202 phone number does not work.”
She also seemed to accuse Representative Langevin of having knowledge about the Russian hacks in 2010 years before they were common knowledge.
Reed was asked about dealing with the North Korean missile launch.
Samuel Bell asked about the “swamp cabinet” nominees. He first asked if Reed would commit to opposing the same nominees that Whitehouse vowed to oppose two weeks before. Reed agreed with three of Whitehouse’s “no” votes, but admitted to being unsure about whether or not to vote against Ben Carson for HUD and Small Business Administration nominee Linda McMahon. McMahon, says Reed, comes highly recommended by Senators Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.
Reed seemed taken aback by cries from the audience of, “just say no!” and “BOOOOO!”
As for Ben Carson, people shouted, “He’s not qualified!”
Reed said he spoke to Carson and the nominee promised to “Enforce the fair housing act vigorously.”
This brought more cries from the audience. “He lies!”
Reed pushed back, arguing that Carson was “under oath in committee… He has made commitments…
It’s our job to ensure these commitments are kept. Every Democratic member of the committee made the same commitment.
“Just say no!”
As Reed became flustered, Whitehouse stepped in to defend him, pointing out his fellow Senator’s commitment to housing.
Bell then mentioned Dan Coats, whose nomination he called “one of the most disturbing.” When Coates was an ambassador to Germany, said Bell, he “covered up the torture and murder of an innocent German who happened to be a Muslim.” Bell asked the senators, how can we have someone in the top intelligence position who has demonstrated not just anti-Muslim bigotry and torture, but also has shown his ability to cover up the bad actions of a previous administration?
The senators took “no position” on Coats and quickly pivoted to the next question
Environmental activist Roland Gauvin asked about the Burrillville power plant. Whitehouse bravely ran away from the question, giving his pat answer about trusting the process.
James Kennedy (Transport Providence) asks about infrastructure investments, which he maintains should go towards the repair and improvement of the roads we have, not the building of new roads and infrastructure.
Steven Fischbach spoke of being descended from parents and grandparents who escaped the holocaust. Seeing history repeat itself, Fischbach asked the senators to request Trump’s resignation and for the formation of a Unity Government to navigate these turbulent times until the next election. This would be done under the 25th amendment.
Reed became angry at Fischback’s suggestion, and said that at the age of 17, when he joined the Army, he took an oath to defend the Constitution. Forming a “Unity Government” was not something Reed seemed able to consider.
We need to get more actual information into the hands of low-information voters, said this speaker. Also, we need to protect the courts as our last line of defense.
What are you doing to support and protect our courts and judicial independence?
Representative Cicilline the attacks on the courts and the media as a strategy for the Trump administration: Trump is attempting to de-legitimize the media and the courts. Cicilline said to support organizations that support civil rights, women’s rights, and more.
In response to a question, Cicilline talked about the little used 1996 Congressional Review Act, which allows the House to repeal what it considers to be bad policy.
What will you do about the minimum wage?
Katja is a Russian Jewish refugee who is worried about the fate of Syrian and other Muslim refugees. What will stop Trump, she asks, from issuing a better and smarter executive order that will pass muster?
Deborah Lennon from Indivisible RI asked about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Lennon’s chastisement of the men on the stage earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
Cries of “Fillibuster! Fillibuster!” filled the room as Deborah Lennon asked the senators on the stage to oppose Neil Gorsuch.
Trump and the Republicans in Congress, said Lennon, “do not have a mandate, but you do!”
Lennon’s video is certainly worth watching:
A woman asked if the delegation will commit to protecting the undocumented.
Cicilline talked about trying to protect DACA kids. Cicilline then spoke of protecting the undocumented in the “political context and the legal context, and in terms of working with our religious leaders.”
Was Cicilline giving his blessing to the Sanctuary Movement?
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America asked about capitalism, which 51 percent of millennials believe to be the problem. The question, however, was, “What is the new new deal?”
Sadly, we may never know, because Whitehouse pivoted to opposing and undoing Citizens United.
Neither Reed nor Whitehouse will pledge to filibuster Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch. Reed countered that he wants to follow and honor his values, even though Republican obstructionism worked and prevented Merrick Garland from becoming a Supreme Court judge.
What will you do to stand up to corporate greed, asked a man.
Finally, a a man from Jamestown spoke about “Jamestown Sanctuary” which is attempting to have the Jametown Town Council declare the town a sanctuary city.