Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse expected a few dozen people to show up at his “Saturday with Sheldon” constituent meeting, not the more than 150 who arrived to insist that he take a stronger stand against the Donald Trump agenda. These events typically function more like Saturday office hours, where people can grab some one-on -one time with the Senator and get answers to “questions about federal programs, including Social Security, Medicaid, visas and passports, and veterans’ issues” from the Senator’s staff.
As the crowd continued to gather a larger room was secured at the Warwick Public Library on Sandy Lane so Whitehouse could take questions from the audience for about 75 minutes. One thing became very clear, very quickly: People wanted Whitehouse to actively push back against Trump, and they do not expect compromise or any more “Yes” votes on Trump’s cabinet picks.
The very first question Whitehouse faced set the tone for the meeting. “I’m not here to re-litigate the election,” said a constituent, “I want to move forward and exercise another Constitutional right which is impeachment.”
As for the cabinet positions that Donald Trump wants filled, Whitehouse said that he put a lot of stock in something a Republican witness old the Senate during the confirmation hearings for General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Whitehouse was told that “we needed to confirm Mattis because he is a check against the ‘wildly stupid, dangerous and illegal actions that could be expected from the Trump White House.'”
Of course, Mattis stood by for photos while Trump signed his dangerous and illegal executive order banning Muslims but not Christians from entering our country from certain Muslim nations.
Whitehouse didn’t seem to think that standing against all the nominations made sense, and has therefore voted for people like Mattis and Pompeo.
When a constituent suggests that Trump is insane, Whitehouse says that he doesn’t have the expertise to make that determination.
Whitehouse told the crowd that when push comes to shove, the Republicans won’t be able to repeal health care, despite their rhetoric. When Republicans realize that repeal is off the table, Whitehouse hopes to be able to discuss health care reform.
“How do we resist?” asks a constituent. “Is there a feeling in the Senate that Democrats are willing to say no, regardless, across the board?”
“I don’t think that works for us,” said Whitehouse. “I think we’ve got to pick our fights.” Whitehouse also wants to be “pretty smart about how we communicate.”
“Is there a strategic plan in place then?” asked the constituent.
“As to some things, yes,” said Whitehouse, “as to other things… in process. You know we’re still working through this ourselves… That was the topic of our retreat. I think we’re in better shape than we were beforehand on how we deal with the Supreme Court nominee. I think we’re in good shape on how we deal with health care repeal.”
“Normally I would agree with you,” said the next constituent, “but you are dealing with a group of people who are not following the Democratic process… Being rational is not necessarily the best approach.”
Whitehouse was next asked to explain his vote to confirm Mike Pompeo as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. You can read about that in greater detail here:
Once again a constituent asked Whitehouse, “What can we do?” and Whitehouses answer was… unusual.
Whitehouse quoted Senator Barbara Mikulski as saying, “Don’t agonize, organize.” That said, Whitehouse added, “We’re pretty organized here in Rhode Island and I don’t know that you’re going to, you know, get a whole lot more out of Jack [Reed] and David [Cicilline] and Jim [Langevin] and I. I think we’re in it as hard and strong as we can. So participating in national organizations, where than can bring their effect to other states, is going to be really, really important.”
On one level Whitehouse is correct: Our support for groups like the ACLU is already having some result in pushing back against Trump. On the other hand, saying that Rhode Island voters are unlikely to push our representatives any farther than they’ve willingly gone on their own is self-serving. Organizing against Reed may well have convinced him to not vote for all of Trump’s nominations.
Even Whitehouse, at this very meeting, seemed willing to concede positions because people organized and pushed back against him.
More on health care.
A young man stood and chillingly said that when he asked his mother “Am I Jewish?” she told him, “You’re Jewish enough to be put on the trains. I am deeply concerned about the threat of the Trump administration and Steve Bannon.”
From anti-antisemitism to anti-Muslim bigotry: “I’m also ‘deeply concerned’ about the the rhetoric about Muslims and building the wall and the executive order that said we couldn’t have refugees coming into the country…”
Guns were the next topic.
Picking up on the third question, a constituent asks what Senator Whitehouse would need in order to be satisfied that Trump was indeed mentally ill.
Trump supporters are everywhere, said a constituent from Coventry, “I feel we should never become complacent about [Rhode island] being a blue state.”
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” said Whitehouse, “because the election results hit me like a landslide, a ton of bricks. It was- I did not see it coming. Shame on me for not having seen it coming.”
A constituent wanted to know how Whitehouse can justify supporting Hillary Clinton for president over Bernie Sanders, even though the people of Rhode Island clearly wanted Sanders. Whitehouse answered that he was always a Clinton supporter and had pledged his support, but also felt that re-litigating the election was a fruitless task.
Burrillville Town Councillor Ray Trinque wanted to make sure that Whitehouse was aware that support for veterans was too focused on cities, and that not enough services are available to veterans who live away from urban areas.
Trinque also invited Whitehouse to hold an event similar to this one in Burrillville. Whitehouse said he would schedule one. [More details on this as they emerge]
“I think that somehow the Republican Party stole the mantle from the Democratic Party with the populist message…” said a constituent.
“Yes,” agreed Whitehouse.
“Did the Democratic Party really learn that they need to listen?” asked the constituent. “Bernie’s economic message would have been a winner.”
Whitehouse’s plan is to work with Trump on the “populist things that Trump campaigned on” and try “to get something done with him on that.” For instance, Trump has said that he wants to do something about the price of pharmaceuticals. Whitehouse is eager to make that happen.
“I think there’s a very strong sense that if we don’t capture that populist message, if we don’t understand it properly, then we don’t deserve to win,” said Whitehouse.
Whitehouse was challenged on his support for local fossil fuel infrastructure even as he claims the mantle of environmentalist nationally. See:
Whitehouse said he would vote against Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). See:
Whitehouse promised to renew his commitment to LGBTQ rights and protections going forward, especially in the light of the Trump administration.
Whitehouse explained his opposition to Rex Tillerson as Trump’s Secretary of State.
23 I need your support
Whitehouse was asked about his opinion regarding electoral college reform and gerrymandering.
Finally, Whitehouse said that he would not be voting for Tom Price as head of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). See: