Toomey holds town hall meeting in Bethlehem
Fairly or unfairly, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has come under heavy criticism for refusing to meet his constituents at one of those increasingly raucous town halls. One group calling itself Tuesdays with Toomey actually camps outside his legislative offices weekly. On Aug. 31, it was Thursday with Toomey. It was a one-hour televised town hall at the Steelstacks’ PBS39 studios before a small crowd of 54 people and nine reporters and photographers.
Before things got started, about 35 protesters rallied outside the PBS studios. Many of them were dreamers, the name used for undocumented immigrants who came here as children. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, as many as 800,000 dreamers have been granted a reprieve. Although President Donald Trump could end that program, Toomey said at the end of his town hall, “we should find a way” to help this group.
Toomey opposed President Barack Obama’s decision to act by executive order but said he would support legislation to help undocumented immigrants who came here as children.
In addition to these protesters, 23 uniformed police officers were on hand, along with Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio. The chief explained several different groups might attend, including members of the Tea Party who had demonstrated at a Toomey fundraiser the previous week.
“We’re here to keep the peace and protect everybody’s right to assemble and be heard,” DiLuzio said.
No other groups came, so there were no confrontations.
Fake town hall
Two participants told Toomey he was conducting a “fake” town hall. It certainly lacked the shouting and catcalls U.S. Congressman Charlie Dent, R-15th, endured several months ago at a 500-person town hall in Hanover Township, but it was quite informative, thanks to PBS39’s Laura McHugh and Brittany Garzillo. McHugh warned the audience, who had green cards with questions kept from Toomey, that their microphones would go dead if they went on for more than 30 seconds. She even told the senator himself to be more succinct at one point, and both the audience and Toomey started to laugh.
Though there was only a small audience inside the room, the event was broadcast statewide. It was also live-streamed at several media sites.
The audience groaned when Toomey insisted he’s conducted 75 town halls since being elected to the senate because, as he himself acknowledged, they were mostly telephone town halls.
He explained that at larger and more rowdy settings, “there are some people who want to have a disruptive event.”
“The important thing is to have an ongoing dialogue,” he said, adding he sometimes does meet with protesters visiting his field offices.
PBS39’s McHugh, who acted as moderator, said the largest number of questions received concerned Obamacare. Toomey assured a participant her son who is developmentally disabled would still be covered under any of the competing replacements to Obamacare.
“Fundamentally, Obamacare has failed,” he said.
He noted premiums have gone up 120 percent since enactment, and 40 percent of Pennsylvanians now have only one insurer.
“This is not the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.
He said the problem is Obamacare has created a new category of Medicaid for young able-bodied people. The reforms being considered “would have no impact on the persons for whom Medicaid was created,” Toomey said.
Whatever happens, Toomey said there should be a smooth transition.
“It is not OK to just tear it all up,” he said.
Russian election interference
Toomey clearly stated Russia attempted to interfere in the last presidential election. He believes Vladimir Putin is attempting to discredit western democracy.
“That would be a big victory for him,” he noted.
Toomey said he supports the federal investigation of the Russian interference.
“Take this wherever it leads,” he said, even though some news accounts indicate members of Donald Trump’s campaign team met with the Russians.
“Vladimir Putin is not a good guy,” Toomey asserted. “He is not a friend of the U.S.”
Toomey was highly critical of the way Trump responded to Charlottesville. There, a weekend of violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK led to the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester.
“I think the president really missed an important moment at Charlottesville,” he said.
Toomey said Trump could have responded with “moral clarity” but instead said there were “very fine people” on both sides. He called Trump’s statement “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” He said good people would never mix with white supremacists.
Toomey said he opposes increasing the minimum wage to $15, which has been proposed by some Democrats. He said you can’t make people richer by “waving a wand” and added he believed an increase in the minimum wage would just put people out of work.
“I don’t want to be in the business of losing jobs,” he reasoned.
He acknowledged that persons who are paid minimum wage are unable to sustain themselves but said that is why there are various federal programs for people with limited incomes.
One person ejected
Though the town hall was much more polite than the norm, participants groaned again when Toomey said Trump has made great cabinet picks. He was offended when a former waiter at one of his sports bars asserted he voted for Betsy DeVos as education secretary in exchange for about $55,000 in political contributions over the years.
“That’s a character attack you have no basis for,” Toomey snapped.
He went on to explain a senate race costs $15 million and said he was unaware of these contributions until recently.
Toomey said he supported DeVos because of her work on the expansion of charter schools and school choice, which he said ensures “poor kids” trapped in failing schools have the same opportunities that wealthy and middle class kids already have.
Simon Radecki was ejected from the town hall after asking Toomey a question about his daughter. Radecki was trying to make a point about immigration.
Calling Hurricane Harvey a “staggering disaster of epic proportions,” Toomey said, “We will pull together” and do “all we can to help.” He speculated Harvey will probably be linked to an increase in the debt limit and a continuing resolution to keep the government funded.
After the town hall, Toomey was reminded he voted against relief after Hurricane Sandy. He said that was because it became a pork project for senators and congressmen that had nothing to do with relief.