By Tim Hennagir
Constituents who packed U.S. 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer’s first town hall meeting of the year remained civil yet persisent and feisty in expressing their political exasperation.
Approximately 150 people filled the Sartell City Council chambers for the Wednesday, Feb. 22, event. The Sartell Police Department estimated that approximately 400 people waited outside after the doors were closed.
The majority of those waiting in line spent the late afternoon waving signs, singing songs or shouting chants expressing their concerns about Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act or expressing strong opposition to early policy decisions being made by President Donald Trump.
Demonstrators from groups representing Indivisible Minnesota Congressional District 6, Stand Up Minnesota and Expect Resistance attended the meeting.
Sartell resident Sue O’Hara arrived at 1:45 p.m. and was the first in line prior to the start of the town hall.
“The message that we want to give him today is if he doesn’t represent us in a way that the people are asking for, he won’t be elected in 2018,” O’Hara said while standing in line, adding her primary issue was health care.
O’Hara said she was fearful Republican proposals for high-risk insurance pools, possible caps and skyrocketing insurance rates would mean bankruptcy for her family.
“There are proposals to make the premiums for standard risk people more affordable. I get that. But that leaves those of us with chronic disease with choices that are untenable,” she said.
David FitzSimmons, Emmer’s chief of staff, introduced the congressman after a large media contingent and town hall meeting participants had taken their places.
The day before, FitzSimmons had issued a press release that addressed the possibility of the meeting becoming heated and possibly disrupted.
Reports about town halls across country over the past few weeks have been troubling, FitzSimmons stated, adding many of the forums to discuss ideas and opinions had often included shouting, chanting, and other disruptive behavior.
FitzSimmons said if Emmer’s town hall turned disruptive, or if there were any violent actions or threats, the meeting would end and Emmer and his staff would reassess the congressman’s town hall policy.
“Sartell City Hall staff and personnel have been being great setting this event up, but they are working overtime, so we are going to try and keep this on time,” FitzSimmons said.
Emmer opened the meeting by recalling attendance at the 24 town halls he had completed in his first two years in office.
“I’m really grateful that you are here. All of you,” Emmer said. “We’ve had crowds before. I apologize. I think in the future, we’ll use bigger venues.”
Emmer said he and Gov. Mark Dayton were in agreement on the Affordable Care Act not working for Minnesota.
“It’s simply become unaffordable,” Emmer said. “I think as we go forward, we need to talk about pre-existing medical conditions, which are incredibly important.
Minnesota was cutting-edge when it came to taking care of people who could not take care of themselves, and trying to make sure that people who had been denied could access coverage, Emmer said.
“The goal [with health care reform] is returning that type of decision-making back to the states, so they can design programs that work,” he said.
Jim Read, a 2014 Democratic candidate who lost the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement to Joe Perske at the Democratic convention, asked Emmer if he would wait for specifics on a Republication Affordable Care Act repeal package.
“The Affordable Care Act is in a death spiral,” Emmer said. “Gov. Mark Dayton has made it very clear that the Affordable Care Act is done. This thing is not working.”
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price will restoring the authority [for health care reform] to the state level, Emmer said.
“We’ll be able to re-institute programs like we had in the past,” Emmer said. “We need to give the decision-making authority back to the state of Minnesota.”
Immigration policy was another issue addressed by constituents. Haji Yussuf is a Somali man and Muslim who grew up in Kenya, graduated from St. Cloud State University, and chose to stay in the St. Cloud area to raise his family and help his community. He owns a multi-lingual advertising and consulting business called Orange Oak Plus.
“The message that is coming from Washington, D.C. is that Muslims are dangerous for this country,” Yussif told Emmer. “I want you to go back to Washington and tell the president my two- and three-year-old kids are in no way a threat to this country. They are Americans. We love this country.”
Emmer replied that Americans deserved to be safe and able to live to their full potential. “I’m one of 535 voting members of Congress and we have to move this to term. You have an administration that’s indicated immigration is an issue it wants to deal with in terms of the laws that are on the books and determine whether or not they make sense, and if so, which ones should go.”
President Trump’s executive order regarding immigration was rolled out extremely quickly, Emmer said. That original order, issued a week into his presidency, attempted to bar citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the U.S. for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days and refugees from Syria indefinitely.
A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously upheld a Federal District Court judge’s decision to temporarily block the executive order issued by Trump.
“It [the order] could have been communicated much better by the people who were putting it out,” Emmer said. “We want to make sure people who come to this country to pursue their dreams do so legally. The issue that we have going forward is properly vetting people.”
Several town hall attendees asked Emmer about Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the possibility that President Trump’s campaign members interacted with Russian officials.
David Snyder, the former DFL-endorsed candidate who ran against Emmer in November, challenged Emmer to call for an independent, bipartisan special commission to investigate possible election hacking.
“I would like to see you take the forefront on this issue,” Snyder said. Emmer replied, “There are two committees that I understand are working on that, one in the Senate and one in the House. I will support whatever they decide.”
Education, minimum wage proposals, workforce development and transportation were other issues addressed by Emmer during the Feb. 22 town hall.
“We don’t need someone in Washington, some nameless, faceless bureaucrat, telling our teaching professionals what is best for Minnesota,” Emmer said, addressing an education-related question. “Our teachers and parents can figure it out.”
Regarding rollback of federal regulations affecting small business, Emmer mentioned House passage of the Regulations from Executive in Need of Scrutiny, or REINS Act.
“There’s onslaught of federal regulations affecting people who are just trying to make their way in business, he said. “Regulation is not all bad. But when government promulgates rules without any involvement of Congress, rules that could have an impact of $100 million or more on American citizens, I think we should do a cost-benefit and look at that.”
The REINS Act would put in place meaningful checks on agency overreach by requiring congressional approval and the president’s signature for major rules.
Emmer told town hall constituents workforce development and its link to post-secondary education would remain a huge issue.
“We’ve done a disservice to student and parents in the district by making them believe that somehow, everyone has to go get a four-year degree or they are not successful,” Emmer said. “You have kids who are getting degrees and incurring debt up to $100,000, and then they try and go out and get a job, and guess what, they can’t get the job they need to pay down debt they have incurred with the degree they have earned.”
Emmer said he recently toured Anoka Technical College, and was visiting with students in the carpentry program.
“One of them had a degree in psychology from St. Cloud State University, and he tried to go into that profession, and realized he could not make enough money to pay the debt that he had incurred from college,” Emmer said. “He’s getting an associate’s degree in carpentry, and he was hired before he even finished the program. Education should always continue. We should always be thinking about the people we need in the trades.”
Laura Lazaretti, an Otsego resident, repeatedly pressed Emmer about a minimum wage increase.
“We don’t have a minimum wage increase proposed in Congress,” Emmer said. “This is an issue at the state level. I don’t support minimum anything, I support maximum wages for maximum-paying jobs.”
Emmer said he supports reduced regulation, reducing the overall tax burden, and making sure those who create jobs can take risks and re-invest in the economy.
Transportation was the final topic addressed during the Feb. 22 town hall. Emmer cited Trump’s campaign promise to improve infrastructure.
“That bodes well for Minnesota,” Emmer said. “Every piece of major transportation infrastructure touches or runs through the 6th Congressional District. If this president is sincere, there are a whole bunch of people in the House and Senate who are ready to get a major infrastructure bill done. It better be in the first year of [Trump’s] administration.”