SARTELL, MINN. – Amid a wave of contentious public meetings with GOP members of Congress around the country, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer faced polite but pointed questions from a large crowd on Wednesday night at his first town hall of the year.
For just over an hour, Emmer fielded questions on immigration, climate change, health care, wages and allegations of Russian interference in the presidential election from some of the 150 people who packed into the 76-seat Sartell City Hall meeting room. Some of the most intense questions focused on the Affordable Care Act.
Many in the group — and more in the crowd outside, which police estimated at 1,000 people — came to voice their displeasure with President Donald Trump. Nationwide, anti-Trump sentiment has dominated many GOP town halls, but Emmer’s gathering was much milder.
Emmer threw a few barbs at Trump, noting that his immigration order was rolled out too quickly, and that several members of his Cabinet appear to have different priorities from the president. But the congressman from the Sixth District spent much of the meeting appealing to his constituents to find common ground in a divisive political climate.
Responding to a question from a man who said he was Muslim — and had been a Republican until he felt the party was trying to exclude people of his faith — Emmer said he wanted to support people of all backgrounds.
“Everyone in this country deserves to be able to live to their full potential and practice their faith, do you agree?” he said. “Then we have a common interest and look forward to working with you.”
The congressman drew some boos during his responses to questions on the Affordable Care Act, which he said had prompted insurance premiums to surge and should be changed as quickly as possible.
Sue O’Hara, a retired medical technician from Sartell who was the first to line up for the town hall, told Emmer that she suffers from bone cancer and worries that people like her would lose coverage if the law is repealed. “My life is in your hands,” she said.
Emmer told O’Hara that he sympathized, and sees repealing the Affordable Care Act as a nonpartisan issue. “All the Minnesotans I know, they don’t look at it as being Republican or Democrat. They want to make sure that you survive, that you thrive, just like everybody else,” he said.
Challenged on some of his responses, Emmer told the crowd that he is trying to address their issues — but limited in his role in the larger congressional body. “You’ve got to remember, I’m one of 535, and you’ve got to move this big monster and get it to turn,” he said.
An event of high interest
Emmer was the only Republican in Congress with a public event scheduled in Minnesota; Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen of the state’s Second and Third districts have held “telephone town hall” events in recent weeks.
Emmer’s meeting generated a flurry of interest among progressive groups in and outside Emmer’s district. But most who turned up were from the Sixth District, representing a range of issues and groups — or just themselves as individual voters. Some wore stickers listing their ZIP code.
Vicki Morgan, 73, of Annandale, said the presidential election prompted her to attend political events for the first time in her life, starting with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. She came to the meeting with 20 cards she planned to deliver to Emmer, each with a message from someone explaining why they are concerned about climate change. She said she’s especially concerned about the fate of the Environmental Protection Agency.
She bristled at the idea that meeting attendees like her are being paid, as some Republicans have suggested. “Standing out here for three hours at 73 — nobody could pay me to do that,” she said.
Before the meeting, a few people with megaphones led the crowd in chants of “This is what democracy looks like” and a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”
A smaller contingent of meeting attendees carrying Trump campaign signs also engaged with the larger group.
Two people got into a back-and-forth, with one man yelling, “We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter,” and the second man repeating, “Four more years.”
Emmer’s staff had sent out a news release a warning that the congressman would leave if the meeting became too raucous. But as it ended, he thanked the crowd for being cordial and promised to hold another meeting.
“How about tomorrow?” one person yelled.