NFV Constituent Town Hall, Saturday February 25
by Rita Clagett
Nearly 200 constituents of Republicans Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Scott Tipton packed the Paradise Theater in Paonia on Saturday for a town hall meeting while the Federal congress was in recess. People came from Grand Junction, Montrose, Delta, Cedaredge, and the Roaring Fork Valley as well as the North Fork Valley. Event organizers who also marched in Denver on January 21st, had invited both Tipton, whose staff had said he was in Germany and so could not attend; and Senator Gardner, whose staff said he did not like to attend town hall meetings, and declined to attend in his stead. A film crew documented the meeting so all questions and comments for the representatives could be sent to them.
Congressman Tipton's surprise arrival was greeted with warm applause. He stood on the stage for the next hour and a half as constituents addressed him and the vacant stool representing Senator Gardner, responding to many of the questions and concerns raised by many of the thirty people who had signed up to speak. State Senator Kerry Donovan, Democrat for District 5, attended the town hall and was also greeted warmly. She addressed the audience briefly toward the end of the meeting.
Top issues voiced by multiple constituents included health coverage for everyone with appeals to fix the Affordable Care Act, not repeal it; protecting the North Fork Valley from oil and gas development; and urgent concerns about First Amendment protections, and the Trump administration's apparent collusion with Russia. Others spoke to climate change as the crucial issue of our time, the basic right for quality public education for all children, essential environmental protections, and protection of civil rights for women and other minority groups.
Constituent comments began with Robin Smith of Paonia asking, "Where can I go to collect my $1500?" alluding to Senator Gardner's recent claim that protesters were paid out-of-state professionals. His concern about the early signs of dictatorship emerging in the Trump administration was greeted with loud applause and was echoed several times throughout the afternoon by other speakers. He asked Tipton and the absent Gardner, "What are you going to do to stand up to this fascist dictator before he destroys our country?"
Congressman Tipton's reply listing several things he has done was judged inadequate by many in the audience who began to boo. Throughout the afternoon some of his replies were booed and a few were applauded, while frequent hecklers were often shushed by fellow audience members. He went on to say that "Executive fiat is not the way our country was intended to be run."
Cynthia Hines, a cancer survivor, speaking alternately to the audience and directly to Congressman Tipton, said she has a vested interest in health care, like millions of others who are self-insured. While she agrees that the Affordable Care Act needs to be repaired, she asked why, after 7 years of talking and trying to repeal it, Republicans still don't have a plan? "This is nothing to play around with," she said, and went on to cite the Patient Protection section of the ACA, deeming it "absolutely crucial. You can leave it just like it is." Point by point she outlined the seven essential components, including non-exclusion for pre-existing conditions and no lifetime or condition caps. Each of her points was greeted with huge applause and people began to stand. At one point the crowd chanted "Leave it alone!"
"I want to engage with you," she told Tipton. "These are really big problems and have hugely important consequences. Please do not repeal the ACA, please just fix it." The audience rose from their seats in a long and rousing standing ovation, showing their vehement support for health care for everyone.
Tipton replied, "Here's where we have a lot in common," and cited his own brother's pre-existing condition. Then he proceeded to list the failures of ACA; his mention of Health Savings Accounts was met with boos and yells, because really how realistic is that? "Why can't we have what congress has!?" someone asked. "Congress has the same choices you have," said Tipton, but the crowd did not seem to believe him.
Mary Smith, a former schoolteacher, expressed her grave concerns about House Bill 610, to distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to ... repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools. Mention of the bill was greeted by boos from the audience. Ms. Smith said passage of this bill would endanger one of our most basic human rights, the equal opportunity for all children to succeed, and asked Tipton and the absent Gardner, "Will you fight to preserve quality education for all children or will you give in to the interest of the privileged few?" Tipton replied, "I do believe in school choice," citing great charter schools that he knows but not answering the question whether he will or will not support public education.
Mary Jursinovic, artist and sustainable homesteader, told the congressman that it is "critically important that our land be protected from oil and gas development...including fracking" that would "cause irreparable harm to us and our livelihood." Her statement was greeted with another standing ovation. She followed this by questioning Tipton's recent vote to rescind the BLM methane emission rules, and invited both Tipton and Gardner to visit her farm, encouraging them to act on behalf of us instead of the oil and gas industry. Another long and total standing ovation followed these remarks, confirming if there was any doubt that unbridled energy development in the North Fork Valley is adamantly opposed by many.
Tipton stated that he supports many forms of energy development including alternative energy and oil shale drilling and that it has to be done right, but the audience did not appear satisfied with his response, erupting into boos.
Elena Goldstein, retired educator and climate activist, addressed Tipton directly with a list of questions about the environment and climate change, including: Do you believe our planet is warming? Do you understand what this means for the future? What plans do you have for addressing these problems? Do you realize that the extraction of fossil fuels and the rampant use of them is a significant cause of climate change? What are your plans for expediting the development of alternative energy in this country? Do you not feel guilty for accepting large sums of money from the oil and gas industry?
"Climate change," she continued, "is not just another issue, it is the critical issue of our time. Please recognize that introducing, speaking, and voting for any bill that will harm our planet will be the height of irresponsibility and immorality. The future is at stake!" Another enthusiastic standing ovation ensued, as a woman near the back yelled "Denier! Denier!"
Tipton reiterated his earlier response that he believes it needs to be "all of the above," and joked that "I've always believed the climate is changing," but did not actually answer any of Ms. Goldstein's questions about climate change being caused by human activity.
Dr. Tamara Hardesty, like several who spoke before and after her, thanked Tipton for coming, and lauded the courage and spine he displayed standing before this crowd, then asked him to please take that courage and spine to Washington and stand up for us. "Often we separate international and domestic concerns," she said, "but now we can't separate them." She spoke about rights to free speech and assembly, freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and security concerns because of the Trump administrations appearance of collusion with Vladimir Putin, demanding that our representatives take back our government for America. Tipton responded that he would look into the harassment her daughter received at the Canadian border because her name "sounded Arabic," and assured the audience that, "The Russians are not our friends."
Susan Cypher of Grand Junction said, "My main concern really is Russia: it's that simple and that complex." She demanded an independent investigation with a special prosecutor into Trump's ties to Russia. Tipton replied that committees are looking into this. Cypher insisted that the committees have already shown that they're going to lean on the press and not listen to constituent calls to pursue this investigation.
Jo Clugg from Montrose asked, "Why has the GOP not insisted that Trump release his tax returns?" to which Tipton responded that it is fine with him if Trump does so.
Brent Womack, a former biology teacher, spoke to the Trump administration's cancellation of regulations and safeguards, particularly environmental protections including the Stream Protection Act. He asked, "When you said you wanted to protect our water, which you've said all afternoon, why did you vote to rescind this act?" Further, he said, "I can only surmise that both of you are controlled by the fossil fuel industry and being supported and funded behind the scenes by the likes of the Koch brothers and their billionaire compatriots... I would like to know, how beholden are you to the billionaire faction? Trump's egregious administration ... is following the Koch brothers agenda precisely."
Tipton replied that the Stream Protection Act was designed for only six particular Appalachian streams and then expanded, and that it wasn't relevant to western mines, and had been effectively acting as a hidden tax on families seeing their energy bills increase.
Retired Hospice nurse Marjorie True spoke about healthcare, saying many people received healthcare that didn't have it before the ACA. "If it's repealed and not replaced," she said, "we are at risk of closure of over 8 hospitals in rural Colorado, most significantly for us Delta County Memorial Hospital. Many rural hospitals closed in states that didn't accept expanded Medicaid, she said, and there was an increase of 44% in Medicaid recipients in Colorado after the expansion; all of these insured people stand to lose their healthcare if ACA is repealed and not replaced. She also pointed out that health care is one of the top jobs providers not only in the country but in Delta County. Tipton agreed that these are real challenges, then suggested that DCMH had a tough time recruiting new physicians, but this claim was disputed by people closer to the hospital than the Congressman.
At around 3:40, Congressman Tipton took his leave of the town hall meeting, and was again thanked and applauded for making his surprise appearance.
State Senator Kerry Donovan stood and offered advice on how to get your comments heard by your representatives. She assured people that their voices are being heard, and urged them to keep calling, sending personal emails, and sending letters and postcards. She discouraged the click and send emails and petitions online, saying they are often lumped as one comment. "It's much more impactful to write your own three-sentence reply, just a quick agree or disagree, I'm from here, and here's why. If you have a personal story to share, share it, it's powerful for us to have a story to tell on the mic or at a committee meeting. A couple of thoughtful emails on one topic can change the course of an office."
Following Tipton's departure about half the audience also left, but several people continued to voice their concerns for the live Facebook stream of the event, and for the video that will be sent to both elected representatives.
In addition to the above constituents, Carol Nudell, Dr. Susan Raymond, Vera Mulder, Mary Bachran, Lori Molitor, Dr. Mandy Swanson, Julie Kinder, Jean Berger, Rita Clagett and Suzanne Rieder addressed the elected officials.
Carol Nudell, a retired federal employee, decried proposed giant federal cuts to social and safety programs in order to "shift nearly 400 billion dollars over to Department of Defense." Her presentation was accompanied with graphs and a quote from founding father and second US President John Adams: Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men..." She pointed out that currently, the US spends more on defense than the next 21 countries combined.
Dr. Susan Raymond, a veterinarian, expressed her concern that the Farm Bureau falsely claims to know the needs and priorities of "those of us on the Western Slope," and that they're using their influence to benefit the oil and gas industry and factory farming at the expense of family farms.
Vera Mulder gave a summary of various bills before the House of Representatives, all of which could have seriously unfortunate consequences for most Americans.
Mary Bachran avowed that we have fought hard for our civil rights and equality and said, "This administration has defiled women and is trying to take our rights away." She insisted that our elected officials need to stand up for the rights of every human being in the country.
Lori Molitor of Cedaredge asked the absent legislators another series of questions, including: What is your position regarding the conservative priorities expressed by presidential advisor Steve Bannon in promoting a nationalistic economy? How about Bannon's priorities that would result in the destruction of an administrative state? Which of these agencies would you favor for destruction and why? Agriculture? Education? Health and Human Services? Housing and Urban Development? Labor? Interior? "Before you decide," she urged, "please research how much money and how many jobs each of these provides in Colorado." Finally she asked, "Do you or do you not consider freedom of the press to be a cornerstone of democracy?"
Dr. Mandy Swanson suggested money-saving options such as providing birth control to prevent pregnancies, pointing out that she can provide birth control for five years for the cost of one pregnancy; and not deporting parents of US citizens forcing children into the costly foster care system. Her emotional appeal urged the representatives to protect healthcare for everyone and to stand up for immigrants.
Julie Kinder was distressed at the administrations war on carnivores, with proposals to allow open slaughter of any animals that stand in the way of the oil and gas industry. She said that Congressman Tipton had once said that if he got six phone calls urging him to vote a certain way that is how he would vote, and she wondered what happened to that pledge?
Jean Berger, who works at a mental health rehab facility, offered more thoughts on the importance of health care for everyone, and stated that she herself would lose her insurance with repeal of the Affordable Care Act, as would many of the mentally ill clients she serves, who are able to live healthy lives and contribute to society with the benefits of the ACA, and would be reduced to homelessness again with its repeal. "Let's treat people," she urged, "instead of giving all our money to the insurance companies and big pharma."
Rita Clagett spoke of her valued friends and neighbors from all walks of life in this culturally and politically diverse valley, and read excerpts from an essay by Jon Pavlovich called "When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?" calling on those who identify as both Christian and Republican to examine deeply conflicts between the values of Jesus and the apparent priorities of the new Republican agenda.
Suzanne Rieder finished up the comments with a passionate call to voters to take responsibility and vote, reminding our elected officials it is incumbent upon them to represent us and not be constantly campaigning for re-election. She wrapped up the session by recapping many of issues addressed earlier, including the value of the ACA and investigation into Trump's Russia ties. Speaking to the images of the missing representatives, she said, "I expect HIM and HIM to listen to us. We are the people who will or won't vote, we are the people who will or won't call. I want the process of my constitution upheld!"