Hundreds pack Welch's town hall meeting.
Vermont Congressman Peter Welch’s town hall meeting in White River Junction's Briggs Opera House on Friday evening offered a glimpse of the impact that 40 days of the Trump administration have had on Upper Valley residents.
There is no doubt that Trump has increased Upper Valley interest in national politics. The 300 people filling the opera house were joined by reporters from Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Digger and three television crews. (In 2016, a similar gathering was typically held in a coffee shop and attracted only 10-15 people, recalled one of Welch's aides.)
“It’s dark times and the country is losing its way in D.C.,” Welch told his audience. “But it gives me such hope to have so many of you show up, to see your concern, your energy, and your commitment to our future. We’re going to get through this. There is nothing wrong with America. It’s what's right with America that will get us to where we need to be.”
For more than two hours Welch fielded questions and listened to concerns from residents who, by and large, were anti-Trump. (If there were any Trump supporters in the house, they didn’t speak.) Upper Valley Vermonters were upset by Trump’s travel ban, his attacks on immigrants, his healthcare plan, his stance on climate change and environmental protection, and the evolving saga of the Trump campaign’s Russian connections.
Welch’s responses were met with hearty applause.
The Travel Ban: “That is fundamentally a ban on religion. I am so relieved that the courts found it to be what you and I knew it was — absolutely unconstitutional. We do not have a religious test in this country. It is astonishing to all of us that the highest officer in our land signed an executive order that was intended to implement a religious test.”
Immigration: “President Trump talked about a crime that was committed by an illegal alien that got out of jail. Whether the status of the person is illegal or legal the crime is what should be condemned—not a whole category of people.”
Healthcare: “That bill is largely written and I’ll be going into my committee (Energy and Commerce) next week to have a discussion about it. This bill is of enormous consequence and I’ve not seen it. I can’t see it. We tried to find it last week and it's under lock and key. This is a democracy. It should be totally out in the open for us to inspect, for us to kick the tires, for us to have a debate. That knowledge belongs to you. When your elected representative can’t get access to it, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way democracy is functioning.”
Climate Change: “This administration does not believe climate change exists and that is bizarre. Steve Bannon is advocating getting out of the Paris Climate Accords and that would be a catastrophe."
Weakening of Environmental Protections: “This is unreal, we just got rid of the stream protection rule that does the radical thing of saying you can’t dump coal into streams."
The Russian Connection: “This whole Russian connection is serious. The attorney general is really compromised in the ability to do an independent investigation. The real question — was there any involvement from the folks in the Trump campaign and the Russians. We don’t know the answer. We know there was a lot of contact. In my view you’re entitled to know that.
Just as Upper Valley residents were eager to hear Welch’s inside-the-beltway take on the Trump administration, they were equally eager to share their stories about the negative impact Trump was having on their lives and the Upper Valley community.
One speaker described an incident in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained an undocumented immigrant and his entire family as he made his way to the courthouse in White River Junction to face a DUI charge. An immigration advocate from Vermont Law School later found info about the man, but there was nothing about the rest of the family. “This reminds me of Germany before World War Two," the retired nurse from Hitchcock said. "I don’t say that this man didn’t commit a crime and that they (the ICE agents) were not within their legal right, but there is no accountability."
A teacher working a second job for Putney-based WorldLearning had concerns about the proposed cuts to the State Department budget. World Learning has plans to bring 160 teens from Iraq to learn about American culture, civics and democracy. Federal money pays for the program. “If the State Department budget is cut and the White House has its say in terms of the visa issue, those kids won’t come in. That is devastating. If we’re looking at a peaceful world we need to be building it from the young people.”
Hank Cheney, a retired minister, was moved to tears after describing how cuts in Medicaid would hurt Vermont's less fortunate citizens— including his 47-year old son who has cerebral palsy.
“He did not choose to spend his life in a wheelchair,” said
Cheney. “I am so vitally concerned that the heart of our country seems to be
destroyed at this time. I am concerned with Planned Parenthood defunding. I am
concerned when I read they want to stop dental care for children through
Medicaid. I am concerned for all
of us in this room with the proposed cuts to Social Security. It just seems
like our country is losing its heart and I shall cry.”