U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen distanced himself from President Donald Trump before a crowd of his constituents Wednesday, using a town hall meeting his critics sought for months to highlight areas where he disagrees with fellow Republicans in Washington.
“I have been opposite the president on immigration,” Paulsen said at the morning meeting in Hamel, one of three he held throughout the day around his suburban, western Twin Cities district. It was one of several issues on which he drew distinctions between himself, Trump and Republican congressional leaders.
A five-term Republican, Paulsen is running for re-election this year in a tough political environment in a district that Trump lost by more than 9 percentage points.
Dean Phillips, a businessman and philanthropist who is the DFL-endorsed candidate, is expected to be Paulsen’s toughest challenger yet. The Third District race is drawing national interest and money, as Republicans try to protect incumbents and Democrats seek a path back to the House majority.
“Rest assured, voters in the 3rd District will have many more than three opportunities to visit with me between now and November 6th,” Phillips said in a statement. For months, grass-roots activists from the district have pressured Paulsen to convene town hall-style meetings, which have been rare during his tenure, so that they could question him.
The tone at the Hamel meeting was insistent but polite, with none of the shouting matches that at times have characterized public interactions between Congress members and their constituents around the country. The crowd of about 100 politely peppered Paulsen with questions, which he politely parried, with many in the crowd occasionally holding up red colored cards to express disapproval.
Paulsen has a conservative voting record that closely matches the House GOP caucus. But in response to questions about immigration, he noted his support for a bipartisan measure to grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, the so-called Dreamers.
He broke with Republican colleagues last week to sign what’s called a “discharge petition,” a parliamentary tactic that would force House Republican leaders to bring immigration legislation to the floor.
When guns came up, Paulsen said: “Some of the positions the NRA has taken, I’ve been on the opposite side,” though he has long been an ally of the gun rights group, and a recipient of its political donations.
Derek Roek, a retired data processing professional who lives in Plymouth, was typical of the questioners: cordial but direct and challenging. He asked Paulsen to detail specific initiatives he is taking on guns.
Paulsen said he wants to ban so-called bump stocks, devices that can turn a firearm into the equivalent of an automatic weapon, used to deadly effect in the Las Vegas massacre last October that left 58 people dead and 851 injured. A subsequent effort to ban bump stocks stalled in Congress.
Paulsen also reiterated support for “red flag” laws, also known as gun violence protective orders, which generally allow police to seize guns from people deemed dangerous by a judicial authority.
When it comes to Russian meddling in U.S. elections, Paulsen scolded the White House: “The administration is not giving it the same attention that I think it deserves.”
He backed Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation of the Trump campaign, despite repeated attacks from Trump and many House Republicans.
“The integrity of the election process is critical. It’s part of the reason the Mueller investigation should go forward to its conclusion, without interference,” Paulsen said.
Although Republican lawmakers like Paulsen may gesture toward bipartisan, centrist policies around issues like immigration and guns, those initiatives have been nonstarters in the GOP-controlled House, where conservative blocs have been able to exert influence on GOP leaders.
And increasingly, the most conservative among the House GOP ranks have backed Trump’s assertions that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt.”
Paulsen is on the same page with the White House and Republican leadership on one major issue: he’s a full-throated supporter of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which he helped craft. He said it is leading to bonuses, higher wages and investment in new production.
The town hall crowd murmured its dissent and barked about the deficit. As CNBC recently reported, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist called the nation’s fiscal outlook “not good,” citing a deficit rising from $825 billion, or 4.1 percent of gross domestic product, to $1.25 trillion, or 5.5 percent of GDP, by 2021.
The crowd at the community center in Hamel was selected at random after people were invited to sign up for the chance to attend, Paulsen’s office said. The crowd appeared to be weighted toward constituents who want Paulsen defeated in November.
Sarah Eigenmann, who is active in a progressive grass roots organization called Indivisible, said she was unimpressed with Paulsen’s performance. “We’re tired of him being beholden to corporate interests,” she said in an interview after the event.
Eigenmann is the type of voter who has Democrats optimistic about their fall prospects against incumbents like Paulsen — she is new to the political process but intensely interested. Trump spurred her to action, she said: “He woke me from a political coma at the age of 57,” she said.