By Glynn Wilson –
MOBILE, Ala. — Republican Congressman Bradley Byrne faced a packed town hall of opposition protesters and constituent supporters Monday night, answering questions about veterans health care, the environment and controversial decisions, statements and actions by the new President, Donald J. Trump.
About 250 people made it into the private auditorim on Dauphin Street at the private senior center after public demand forced the staff to expand the room from the original 120 limit. Another 200 or more were locked outside in the parking lot and warned by Mobile police they would be arrested if they did not leave, drawing criticism from protesters and supporters alike that the Congressman should have chosen a larger venue and accusations that he was hiding from constituents.
Perhaps the strongest questions and concrete positions that came out in the sometimes raucous discussion had to do with the environment, a major issue even with many Republicans along the Gulf Coast in Mobile and Baldwin County. Byrne categorically said he opposed getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. But he waffled in a way his Republian colleagues have come to do in talking points by saying the EPA has “sometimes gone too far” and cost the economy jobs.
Mobile attorney Herndon Inge III warned Byrne that he should represent all his constituents, or face opposition in the midterm elections in 2018.
“I don’t represent the special interests in Washington,” Bryne replied. “I represent the people in this district. I’m going to listen to the people of my district.”
He said sometimes he’s going to vote the way people want him to vote, “and sometimes I’m not. That’s the way the system works…. I’m going to represent everybody.”
Barry Parker of Daphne, who indicated she had voted for the Congressman and considered him a friend, said she was seriously concerned about President Trump’s statements on the judiciary and his “attack on judicial review,” the right of a federal court to question a presidential executive order.
“He’s also called a federal judge a ‘so-called’ judge,” she said. “Do you condone this, and if not, why have you not spoken out against it?”
Byrne, an attorney, stood up for judges under the constitution.
“The courts do have the power to oversee executive orders,” Byrne said. “I don’t speak for president Trump. I only speak for me.”
A women from Fairhope with a child who has cystic fribrosis who may need a lung transplant, said she was concerned about this Congress, under President Trump, changing the health care system to allowing private insurance companies to go back to denying people coverage for preexisting conditions and imposing annual and lifetime caps on coverage amounts.
Byrne said the new Trump-Republican healthcare plan was just released on Monday and if anyone now has health insurance and continue to pay their premiums they can not be denied coverage.
“That will be the law … when that bill is passed,” he said.
But for those who do not have coverage now, those with a pre-existing condition should be covered by state plans to be subsidized by the federal government.
Jude Forsyth from Theodore asked about problems with veterans health care, something Bryne has pledged to support, specifically the dwindling number of local doctors who accept the health care card offered veterans.
Byrne said he introduced a bill to allow veterans to have a card that would allow them to go to any private doctor or hospital, anytime, not just the VA, but apparently it is not working.
“We have veterans who are literally dying waiting on the veterans health care system to take care of them,” he said. “That is not acceptable.”
Forsyth also asked about “real Republicans” verses the new Trump party.
“Something has happened in our country,” she said. Republicans know that Russian interference in our elections is wrong, and that avoiding presidential corruption is the “central lesson of Watergate.”
“Trump uses a fake business conflicts plan to undermine the integrity of the presidency with a recklessness that makes Richard Nixon look like a saint,” she said.
Republicans respect the leaders of U.S. allies, including Germany, Australia and Mexico, she said, while “Trump has kinder words for Vladimir Putin than he does for our allies.”
She said Trump undermines western alliances that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and kept their expansionism in check, while Trump undermines NATO with his comments.
“Are you a real Republican,” she asked, “or are you now a member of the new Trump party?”
Bryne laughed off the question, pointing out that the Alabama Education Association and Alabama Democrats under Paul Hubbert formed a group called “Real Republicans” to defeat him in his race for governor in 2010 by spending about $3 million on attack ads on television calling him “too liberal for Alabama.”
“Russia didn’t just become a problem last fall,” Byrne said. “Russia’s been a problem.”
He said as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he and other Republicans tried to tell the Obama administration Russia was a problem. “But they wouldn’t listen,” he said, to boos and catcalls from the Democrats in the audience.
“What I have been advocating is for a very strong and forward presence against Russia in Eastern Europe, which is part of our NATO obligation,” he said. “I am very disturbed by what Russia has done in Syria, literally murdering civilians, along with the Syrian government.”
He also said he was “very disturbed by the fact” that “the Russian government tried to interfere with the presidential election in November.”
But he said it was not their first time to interfere in elections “around the world.”
“They do it a lot,” he said. “They are getting better at it. But what they did last fall here in the United States was pretty ham-handed, and it didn’t work.”
There is an investigation into Russian interference by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, he said.
“Those are the right committees to do that. I trust them to do it, and they will do it right,” he said.
A tea party member who claimed to teach a class on the “war on terror” tried to give a long lecture on world history, while bashing President Obama, but he was mostly shouted down by the audience.
“The record on what happened over the last eight years is pretty clear,” Byrne said. “That’s over. We’ve got to deal with the foreign policy and the defense of the U.S. going forward.”
One woman asked if Byrne would support the call for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the election.
“At this point in time I know of no information that would justify a special prosecutor. If information is developed that I believe truly warrants a special prosecutor … I will ask for one.”
An Episcopal minister, Reverand Jim Flowers, who said he knew the Congressman, asked about Trump’s stringent anti-immigration policies. Byrne, also an Episcopalian, admitted that the scriptures no doubt say “welcome the stranger.”
But he defended the immigrant ban issued by President Trump on Monday as not a religious issue, by saying, it “does not ban Muslims.”
It only singles out six countries for special vetting where the U.S. government has a hard time identifying people because of problems with the governments in those countries.
“ISIS has threatened to embed terrorists into refuge populations,” he said. “President Trump wants to take 90 days to get (the vetting process) right. I think that’s reasonable … and at the end of it you and I will be safer. It’s the right thing to do and I do support it.”
A woman from south Baldwin County, who said she has voted for Byrne every time and wished he was governor instead of Robert Bentley, to a loud round of applause, asked about the environment. She brought up the BP Gulf oil spill seven years ago and said it not only spoiled the environment, but devastated the tourist and seafood economies in the area.
“When that rig blew up, a lot of businesses lost everything,” she said. “I would like to know how you are going to stand up for the environment.”
She pointed out that Trump and his appointment to head EPA has said he wants to get rid of the agency altogether.
“One of the good things you can say about Nixon was the Clean Water Act,” she said. He also pushed and signed the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We are downstream,” she said.
Byrne said he grew up in the outdoors and fully supports the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.
“I do not support doing away with the EPA,” he said. “But there have been some times when the EPA went too far,” costing people their jobs.
He talked about balancing environmental protection with creating jobs
“What BP did in 2010 … was a travesty,” he said. “They still haven’t paid enough money as far as I’m concerned.”
He claimed the federal standards then, under the Bush administration, were lower than the industry standards.
“We do that and more now,” he said, since the Obama administration changed the rules. “I’m going to be ever more vigilant that we are enforcing regulations to keep us from suffering under another environmental catastrophe like that.”
Alli Flowers, a teacher at LeFlore High School in Mobile, said she was afraid of Besty DeVos taking over at the Deparment of Education, which some Republicans in Congress and Trump have vowed to eliminate.
She asked where Byrne stands on killing the Department of Education, “because it’s going to kill us here in Mobile,” she said. They receive funding under Title IX that would be lost.
Byrne stood up for state and local public education.
“That’s really been my life’s work,” he said. “Education is so very important to all of us.”
But he said the federal government only funds 15 cents on the dollar, and represents 50 percent of the “red tape” and paperwork.
Under the Obama administration, he and Congress replaced the Bush “No Child Left Behind Act” with the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” getting rid of federal standards and paperwork.
A man from West Virginia coal country who said his name was Dan, who now lives on Dauphin Island, asked about protecting rivers and mountain tops from coal pollution, and pointed out that the reason coal is losing out in the market place is because natural gas is cheaper and automation is coming into the coal mining business.
Byrne said there were already regulations in place to protect rivers.
“I simply want the EPA to do its job, and that is enforce the regulations that are on the books,” he said. But he recently voted with other Republicans, based on Trump’s plan to remove regulations from the books.
He claimed the way the regulations were written before, it was “impossible” to “mine coal anywhere.”
“We need to put these coal miners back to work,” he said, since Mobile has the second largest coal terminal in the country.
Dan also asked Byrne when people could expect to see him stand up to the president, “since we all know that Donald Trump is a pathological liar,” a line that drew a loud round of applause.
“When are you going to start calling him out and asking him to retract these statements?” he asked. “Cowardly silence equals acceptance. Trump has awakened the sleeping lion, and we will vote in every election. When are you going to stop putting party ahead of country?”
Byrne admitted that the Trump video making fun of a disabled person was “never” appropriate behavior and he claimed to have spoken out against that, but he said Trump had an important job to do.
In response to the last question about a “single payer” health care system, he said he does not support single payer, but a private health care system with “choices.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since we suffered an audio glitch in our video recordings of the town hall meeting, I decided to use a live Facebook video of the event to produce something special, an old fashioned “newspaper of record” style story documenting almost everything of note that happened at the meeting. That includes most of the key questions and newsworthy quotations from the answers, within reason considering the quality of the audio on the live video.
© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.