CONSTITUENTS ORGANIZED A TOWN HALL BECAUSE POLITICIANS WOULDN’T

By Tyna Ek

A group of ordinary citizens did what our Senators haven’t been able to accomplish for years—they held a constituents’ Town Hall. About 650 energized voters showed up Saturday night at Seattle Unity Church in Seattle for a citizens’ town hall with their senators. It’s a shame that Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell weren’t there to hear the praise, questions and deep concerns of these passionate voters. The audience was educated by knowledgeable panelists and riveted by compelling personal stories about how the regressive Trump administration is hurting real people right here in Washington State. The big ask of the evening: “Senators, hold a Town Hall!”

Far from the hostile crowds some politicians are citing as reasons to avoid Town Halls, last night’s Town Hall confirmed that Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell should not fear meeting with their own constituents. Moderator Jonathan Tong (high school teacher by day) began the evening by pausing to acknowledge the Duwamish people “on whose land we are meeting.” He then asked veterans to stand as the room broke out into resounding applause in gratitude for their service in preserving the very freedoms the group came to discuss. The Town Hall then quickly moved into a focused discussion of healthcare and the Affordable Care Act, Immigration policy, Russian interference with the presidential election, and Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch.

Since Senators Murray and Cantwell did not attend the town hall, and declined the invitation to send a spokesperson from their staff, the citizen organizers presented five panelists knowledgeable about the four main topic areas. These panelists explained current and proposed government policies, recent Trump administration action, and responded to audience questions.

The panelists were well received by the audience Saturday night, and definitely helped keep the Town Hall focused and accurately informed. But the real stars of the night were the ordinary citizens who shared their passionate stories and questions that they wished their senators were there to hear in person.

One woman from the audience explained that as a young healthy person, “I was just coasting on no insurance” when despite no family history, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Burdened with the cost of two brain surgeries, expensive hospital stays, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she said “Obamacare has really saved my life.” Nearly half the room raised their hands in response to the question of how many people had a “preexisting condition,” which can no longer be used by insurers as a reason to exclude coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act (“ACA” a/k/a “Obamacare”) was not the only healthcare concern on people’s minds Saturday night. Panelist David Loud explained GOP proposals to cut back Medicaid and convert it into fixed-dollar block grants. He said that even just eliminating the ACA expansion of Medicaid by repealing the ACA would make 600,000 people in this state lose their coverage and add $3 billion to our annual state budget. Several people shared powerful stories about their reliance on Medicaid, and their fear at threatened cutbacks by the Trump administration. A mother shared that the cost of medications alone for her young daughter with epilepsy cost $1,000 per month; a cost she couldn’t possibly afford without Medicaid.

Pharmaceutical costs, and Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell’s recent vote against a Canadian drug importation bill proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was a hotly debated topic. Some noted that senators voting against that bill cited to a lack of safety measures in the bill to insure the quality of pharmaceuticals coming from outside the country. Panelist Kati Wilkins, MPH pointed out that Canada has its own “strong FDA” as do several other countries. The sentiment of the room seemed to be summed up by a member of the audience who offered: “Last time I checked, I hadn’t heard of mass quantities of Canadians dropping dead [from prescription drugs].”

The Town Hall participants were given paper signs to hold up, showing whether they “agreed” or “disagreed” with various speakers and positions. On healthcare, the overwhelming majority agreed they wanted to preserve and improve the ACA until single-payer healthcare could be implemented.

Several immigrants spoke about the fear they have lived with since President Trump was elected, and the uptick of hatred and bigotry they have personally experienced. The wife of a DACA recipient explained that her husband is the sole support for her and her three-year-old child, and said they will be homeless if he is deported. Since the recent local arrest of Daniel Ramirez Medina by ICE, she said her “whole family is now terrified.” Echoing multiple stories of an upswing of hate and intolerance since President Trump’s election, she said that even speaking out about immigrant rights can now be a risky experience. Responding to one of her Facebook posts, one person threatened to “put a bullet in her head.”

A woman whose family originates from Pakistan said she and her husband have been U.S. citizens for 25 and 30 years respectively. “I have wanted to live in the U.S. since I was . . . a child,” she said. She said she and her husband own two businesses, employ 40 people, and over the last 25 years have “paid millions in taxes.” She wanted to ask her Senators: “When someone tells me to go home, what do I say to them?” “This is my home,” she said.

Near the end of the immigration discussion, one audience member said that the inscription on the Statue of Liberty “doesn’t come with fine print,” and the Town Hall attendees erupted into applause.

When the topic moved to Russia, Panelist Nathan Resick provided a summary of recent news stories related to alleged contacts between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. He also said the mainstream media sources recently barred from White House briefings were all covering this story. Town Hall participants wanted to thank Senator Murray and senate democrats for calling for an independent investigation into Russia’s interference in the last presidential election and wanted to know how they could help make this happen.

Opinions and concerns expressed about Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch varied widely. Most questioners expressed deep concern that his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court would threaten women’s rights to a safe and legal abortion and wanted the senators to filibuster. One male questioner asked what the point of a filibuster would be when it was unlikely to prevent Judge Gorsuch’s ultimate appointment and might cause Republicans to trigger the “nuclear option,” changing the rules to prevent a filibuster of Supreme Court nominees in the future. Panelist Tiffany Hankins said NARAL Pro-Choice Washington was advocating the senators take a two-step approach: Ask tough questions during the confirmation process to force Judge Gorsuch to place his views about women’s legal rights clearly on the record, and then carefully consider whether to filibuster this nomination or save that tool for the next Supreme Court nominee when President Trump may get to replace a more liberal justice than Justice Scalia. In response, Beatrice from the audience passionately exclaimed that if Senators Murray and Cantwell do not “pull out all the stops” to stop Judge Gorsuch’s appointment, if they think a women’s right to choose is a “second or third tier issue,” then “you cannot continue to call yourselves advocates for women.”

Steve from the audience added that there were many reasons to oppose Judge Gorsuch’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in addition to abortion rights. He cited a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging public sector unions that he believes would have been lost if Judge Gorsuch had been sitting in Judge Scalia’s empty chair. He fears “we will lose public sector unions if Gorsuch is confirmed.”

The two-hour Town Hall on Saturday night was organized by ordinary local citizens who have recently formed their own grass-roots activist groups modeled after the Indivisible movement sweeping the nation. The organizers were Seattle Indivisible, Indivisible North Seattle, Indivisible Coopeville and Edmonds Neighborhood Action Coalition. They had no outside funding for this event, but rather reached into their own shallow pockets and passionate pools of talent to rent a venue (and a second venue when overwhelming public response outgrew the original location), prepare signs, organize speakers, draft photographers and videographers and social media experts and everything else that must be done to conduct an effective public Town Hall in 2017. Concerned that citizens have an opportunity to participate even if they could not attend in person, the Town Hall was live-streamed on Facebook, and Town Hall questions were taken from Facebook and Twitter. The organizers are arranging to deliver to Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell, video footage and hundreds of handwritten questions from their constituents.

On one issue there appeared to be universal agreement Saturday night; these voters want Town Hall meetings with their senators and congressional representatives. While recognizing that such direct open forums are not the norm for Senator Cantwell and Senator Murray, these are not normal times. The overwhelming response to this Town Hall, organized by ordinary citizens, demonstrates that citizens want more direct contact with their representatives. Many attendees Saturday night praised the efforts of Senator Murray in particular for her recent tireless efforts filibustering and in other ways opposing recent Trump nominees and policies they found objectionable. They want to help.

At the conclusion of the meeting, there was a strong call for Senator Cantwell and Senator Murray to schedule a Town Hall during their next Congressional recess in April. The message was loud and clear: Your constituents want to be heard, and they want to hear from you.

Photo by Emily Menon Bender.

Photo by Emily Menon Bender.

Photo by Emily Menon Bender. Panelists: Tiffany Hankins, Exec. Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington; Nathan Resick speaking on Russian influence in the election and recent Trump administration retaliation against media who persist in covering this story; René Flores, Ph.D., Assist. Professor of Sociology at the Univ. of Washington speaking on immigration policy; Kati Wilkins, MPH who focused on access to healthcare; and David Loud, representing Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action and who spent the last 10 years working for former Congressman Jim McDermott on healthcare and Veteran’s affairs. Moderator: Jonathan Tong.

Photo by Emily Menon Bender. Panelists: Tiffany Hankins, Exec. Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington; Nathan Resick speaking on Russian influence in the election and recent Trump administration retaliation against media who persist in covering this story; René Flores, Ph.D., Assist. Professor of Sociology at the Univ. of Washington speaking on immigration policy; Kati Wilkins, MPH who focused on access to healthcare; and David Loud, representing Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action and who spent the last 10 years working for former Congressman Jim McDermott on healthcare and Veteran’s affairs. Moderator: Jonathan Tong.

Photo by Emily Menon Bender.

Photo by Emily Menon Bender.