‘Diversity is our strength’
Despite less than a day’s notice, over 400 people braved a downpour and crammed into Hanover Township Community Center March 31 for a town hall with Congressman Charlie Dent (R-15th). The crowd was so huge for the hastily arranged meeting that parking had to be diverted to a nearby church.
Dent, who has regularly conducted these forums since he was first elected to Congress in 2003, explained that he had a difficult time finding a place. He was turned down in several communities over liability concerns about raucous events that have become the latest form of political theater. He thanked Hanover Township for providing a place where he could talk with constituents about his work in Washington. Though several tried to disrupt this meeting, they failed. Dent answered shouted interruptions with his trademark calm and was frequently applauded.
It was a diverse audience that included women festooned in so-called pussy hats as well as corporate executives in three-piece suits. It included young mothers who brought their children and seniors who needed walkers. The large number of people who came on such short notice indicates that people are very concerned about this nation and its direction.
“We need health care,” shouted a woman. “I understand,” replied Dent, who said a bipartisan approach is needed for any meaningful health care reform. He opposed Affordable Care Act, called Obamacare, preferring a more incremental approach.
“We need to fix it,” Dent said several times as some shouted “single payer” and one woman got up to deliver a harangue until Dent finally stated, “This isn’t the Senate. No filibusters. Come on!”
He said President Trump’s replacement bill is worse than Obamacare because it would deprive low-income residents of health care, even after Trump told him he’s “destroying the Republican party.” Calling Congress a “separate and equal branch of government,”
Dent made clear that, “I don’t work for the president of either party. I work for the people of this district.”
His call for a bipartisan approach is one he has made often, saying it is the key to “substantive reform in this country.” He co-chairs the centrist Tuesday group, a group of moderate Republicans who are willing to work with Democrats.
But the gridlock in Washington, reflected by shutdowns and an unwillingness to listen, was on full display by some elements at Hanover Township Community Center, who were more intent on disruptions than in dialogue. While they hooted, Trump Republicans like Northampton County GOP Chair Lee Snover skipped the event. She complained Dent stopped contributing to the county party even though campaign finance reports make clear that Dent gave to the NorCo Republican party last year, and $2,000 was donated after the party began working intently on Trump’s presidential campaign.
His district is now called the “I-78 district” because it stretches along that interstate highway from Northampton to Dauphin County. It was redrawn as part of the 2010 census and eliminated Democratic portions to make it more conservative. Dent said redistricting is done by the state legislature, not Congress.
Asked about a trend toward nationalism and white supremacy, Dent said he is disturbed by threats made against Jewish community centers and minority groups.
“They have to be condemned in the most harsh terms, said the seven-term Congressman. “Our diversity is our strength.”
He reminded the audience it is the Senate, and not the House, which confirms Supreme Court appointments.
“What about the right to my uterus?” shouted one woman, unwilling to wait as Dent attempted to answer a question about gun control. Dent received cheers when he said that he recently voted against a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. But a segment of the audiences booed when he explained that no federal funds may pay for abortion.
“It’s been the law of the land for decades,” he explained.
Dent was also questioned about Donald Trump’s travel ban, which Dent had previously called “ridiculous” when it resulted in the deportation of six Syrian refugees who had been cleared to move to his district. Dent would later meet them at the airport when the ban was invalidated by court order.
The United States “does more for refugees than any country in the world,” Dent said. He thinks there is no real danger from the seven Muslim countries at which the ban was directed.
“My concern is Europe,” he said, specifically citizens of European countries who have been radicalized.
He dismissed concerns over Trump’s draconian budget proposals.
“The president proposes, congress disposes,” he said in response to the fear that the budget could end free school lunches, home-heating assistance to low-income homeowners and even Meals on Wheels.
He noted the irony of increasing defense spending while reducing foreign aid and state department spending. He said foreign policy consists of diplomacy, defense and development.
“We need to do all three effectively,” he said.