The doors to freshman Rep. Angie Craig’s first public town hall opened 18 hours after lawmakers voted to temporarily end the longest federal government shutdown in history.
But as the event got underway, it was clear that the 35-day impasse was far from the only topic on the minds of the 300 or so constituents who turned out in subzero temperatures to pepper the Eagan Democrat with questions.
Perennial debates over campaign finance, climate change and gun control dominated the hourlong Q&A. Many questioners focused on issues of local import, ranging from transportation to the potential impact of the PolyMet copper nickel mine proposal on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The first question came from a Rosemount resident who bemoaned a lack of reliable broadband access in her community.
“I, too, think [the internet is] the great equalizer,” Craig responded, pledging to make increasing access one of her top priorities for infrastructure investments.
Saturday’s event, which had been rescheduled due to shutdown negotiations earlier in the week, was years in the making. The former medical technology executive had pledged to make regular town halls a centerpiece of her campaign for Minnesota’s Second Congressional District.
“I committed to this district that I would be present, I would listen, no matter if it was something I politically agree with,” she told the crowd.
The range of questions, Craig said, reflected the diversity of views and priorities in the district. But even with the wide array of topics, the shutdown’s shadow loomed.
She characterized the past several weeks as a “trying time” that illustrated to her how dysfunctional the government has become.
“I believe it is wrong for any president of any party to shut down the government to achieve a policy objective,” she said.
Lingering angst over the shutdown and the immigration fight that prompted it was palpable.
Cathy Plotnick of Rosemount shared the hardship the shutdown caused her family. Her husband, a federal law enforcement agent, worked without pay for a month. The uncertainty led them to seek a forbearance on their mortgage. She asked Craig to avoid another prolonged shutdown.
“You have my personal commitment that I won’t forget what just happened to federal workers,” Craig said. “And you have my commitment to go back to Washington next week and work with all of my mind to see how we can prevent this from ever happening again.”
Later, Arun Sankaran told his story of immigrating to America in the 2000s. He expressed frustration that after more than a decade of working, paying taxes and following the law, his citizenship remains in limbo as he faces delays for a green card. While he understands the need for safe borders, Sankaran said he wants politicians to back a better legal pathway for immigrants like him.
Craig reiterated support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. She said that while the United States “should be investing in advanced technology on our border and yes, there may be places where we need additional barriers,” many undocumented immigrants have overstayed a legal visa rather than having sneaked through a border.
“If we don’t have these two conversations in tandem, we are never going to solve the problem,” she said.
The civil tone of Saturday’s gathering contrasted with a recent town hall held by GOP Rep. Tom Emmer in Ramsey. Tensions there flared over the shutdown, which had yet to end, and immigration.
Craig struck a moderate tone similar to the one she took while campaigning for the swing district. When asked about the “green new deal” proposed by some of her fellow House Democrats, for example, she said that she will look at the details once finalized but believes that bipartisan solutions are the best path forward. A question about “which side” of the controversy over various viral videos of an interaction between a group of Kentucky students and an American Indian veteran she was on prompted a long answer about listening and showing respect, even during disagreements. “The real problem is there are sides,” she said. “There’s one America.”
Craig, like fellow freshman Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Deephaven, has pledged to make town halls and other forms of constituent face-time a regular occurrence. That plan seemed to go over well with attendees, including some who didn’t vote for Craig.
“The town halls are important,” said Fred Guercio, a self-described conservative Trump supporter who voted for Jason Lewis, Craig’s GOP opponent in 2018. “I want smaller government, not larger government, so we disagree on that, but there are a few people who spoke up.” His main complaint, he said, was that he thought there would be more time for him to get up and ask a question.
He’ll have another chance soon. Craig said she plans to hold town halls about once a month. “I want to know what you want me to work on when I get back to work on Monday,” she told the crowd.