Throughout her tenure in the House of Representatives, Barbara Comstock refused to actually hold a town hall meeting where her constituents could speak with her about the various issues they cared about. She actually received attention in national publications for her failure to do so and it became a talking point for Jennifer Wexton during her 2018 campaign. Wexton promised to hold at least four town hall meetings every year — a promise she’s kept as she held her fourth town hall in Manassas Park yesterday afternoon a little over seven months into the year.
The town hall opened with Delegate Danica Roem (who represents the area the meeting was held in) giving an update on local transportation projects, which shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who’s talked to Danica over the last few years. She’s always looking for an opportunity to discuss the work she’s doing on transportation (which is something Wexton later highlighted) and it’s part of why people from both sides of the aisle have claimed Del. Roem has been an effective legislator.
When Wexton took to the microphone, she highlighted how the House of Representatives has been very active on topics like the Equality Act, the Violence Against Women Act, climate change, and a variety of others even though Mitch McConnell hasn’t allowed any meaningful legislation to even come up for a vote in the Senate. As part of that activity, the congresswoman highlighted how she’s had two bills pass the House with bipartisan support — a piece of legislation that deals with cracking down on financial crime and another one dealing with increasing research on how to handle the opioid crisis. Furthermore, she’s introduce a total of seven other bills and offered five amendments to legislation that have garnered support from members of both parties.
There were about 150 people who gathered in the auditorium of Manassas Park Middle School to have a discussion with Wexton and the vast majority of people appeared to be thankful to engage with their Member of Congress. There were three or four people, however, who had a negative reaction to almost everything the congresswoman said and got very riled up when it came to the issue of gun reform and the Mueller investigation.
Towards the end of the town hall, one of these women got up and asked when taxpayers would get a “refund for the $30 million wasted” on the Mueller investigation. She appeared to be quite proud of herself for putting the congresswoman in what she thought was a bit of a pickle, but Wexton remained calm and rightfully pointed out how the Mueller investigation returned more from the fines levied as a result of the criminal activity it discovered than was spent on the investigation. She also drew attention to how the investigation led to several guilty pleas and indictments of people closely associated with the president and how many legal scholars have suggested Trump would have been arrested for obstruction if he wasn’t the sitting president.
It was also rather interesting that while the woman was so eager to cast Wexton and Democrats as wasting taxpayer money, she clearly had forgotten all the time and money that Republicans spent investigating Hillary Clinton — an investigation that led to no criminal convictions or guilty pleas. As Wexton’s answer received some applause from the crowd, the woman walked away with a disgusted look on her face that suggested she was disappointed her attempt to make the congresswoman look bad actually backfired.
She wasn’t the only person there who tried to use “gotcha questions” to make Wexton look bad. Another person, who kept calling Wexton names after almost everything she said and appeared extremely disturbed by her support of increasing the minimum wage, asked her why “the Democrats” passed HR1 after gaining control of the House of Representatives. Like the woman mentioned above, he attempted to paint this as some sort of conspiracy to waste taxpayer money and increase the wealth of people in office.
In stark contrast to the clear disdain the person appeared to hold for “the Democrats,” Wexton politely explained that the SAFE Act “works on getting dark money out of elections,” protects the vote which has been under attack, and helps ensure politicians are held to high ethical standards. In other words, the legislation is the complete opposite of what the person was trying to portray in a desperate attempt to score some cheap political points.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people who asked questions covered a variety of topics and appeared to be legitimately interested in having a conversation with their Member of Congress. While there were some hyper local issues covered (such as noise from air traffic that impacts communities surrounding Dulles Airport), most of the discussion was about topics that have been in the national news recently.
Healthcare reform was probably the most highly discussed topic during the event as people were concerned about treatment being so expensive even though we’ve made some progress on the issue with the Affordable Care Act. In what might disappoint some more liberal members of her party, Wexton said she doesn’t currently support Medicare for All efforts and doesn’t believe “we can logistically and realistically get to Medicare for All in one fall swoop.”
She was quick to point out, however, that she supports a public option (known now as Medicare X). While explaining her reasoning, she claimed some constituents want to make sure they can keep their employer based healthcare. This is a frequent argument made from opponents of single payer healthcare and was brought up during the presidential debates last week, but a lot of people believe this should represent an opportunity for education about Medicare for All instead of an excuse to prevent any meaningful progress.
While there’s discussion about how to do some comprehensive reforms, Wexton drew attention to other efforts she’s supported to do things like allowing generic medicine to come to the market sooner. She also underscored the importance of standing up to President Trump when he tries to “deliberately sabotage” the Affordable Care Act. While she admits Obamacare could improve, she strongly believes it’s proven beneficial by providing insurance to millions of people while also implementing protections for people with pre-existing conditions, lifting lifetime caps on coverage, and allowing children to stay on their parents policies until the age of 26.
With climate change receiving a lot of national attention and Virginia having some interesting local twists on the topic through the pipeline debates, it shouldn’t be too surprising that climate related questions were also frequently asked. One audience member brought up how we could see an increase in “climate refugees” as more people need to move to escape uninhabitable localities impacted by climate change. This obviously would have an effect on the already contentious topic of immigration reform (which was also brought up at the town hall).
While Wexton made it clear she understood the impact climate change is having on our communities, she also pointed out how it has an impact on the economy. Through her role on the Financial Services Committee, for instance, she’s already been focusing in on how changes to programs like flood insurance might have to be put in place as rising sea levels put communities at risk that didn’t have to worry about it in the past.
Wexton concluded the town hall meeting by saying that were currently in the middle of a six week district work period where she’ll be spending her time “criss crossing the tenth district” and talking to her constituents. This follows up on the 150 individual meetings she’s personally had with constituents and the over 500 case files her office has been able to close since she was sworn in back in January.
“When we do return to Congress,” she said however, “my top priority is avoiding another government shutdown.” She added that the simple act of keeping the government open shouldn’t be her goal, but it represents how frustrating the current political climate can be. That being said, House is moving forward by passing 10 of the 12 appropriation bills required to keep the government working even though McConnell and the Republican led Senate haven’t been as productive on that front.
All in all, the town hall has to be viewed as a successful event that allowed productive conversations to take place. Several people raised concerns that Wexton and her staff needed to investigate a little further in order to have a productive conversation, but she was quick to set the community members up with staffers so those conversations can take place. It’s these interactions that truly illustrate why town hall meetings can help improve the way government works.
As the 2020 elections get closer, one has to wonder if Republicans will have their supporters attend and ask “gotcha questions” that’d make Wexton look bad like some folks tried to do at this meeting. While those attempts clearly backfired yesterday, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if they come occur in the heat of a campaign.