Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse met with constituents Saturday morning at the American Legion Post in Woonsocket on River St. The questions were tough, but Whitehouse answered as he could, sometimes leaving his interlocutors satisfied, sometimes not.
Far from being a casual visit, this Town Hall style meeting was Whitehouse’s first campaign event for 2018. Over 75 people showed up, some to interrogate the Senator, some to volunteer.
So what issues were on the minds of Rhode Islanders? DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the way Democrats handled the shut down were at the top of the list. Related to DACA is immigration, and Whitehouse fielded two questions on that.
Healthcare, specifically a national single payer program seems very much supported, as does the related question of importing lower cost prescription drugs from Canada.
Getting money out of politics and other issues surrounding Citizens United is a question Whitehouse usually does quite well on, and he was on point here. The Robert Mueller investigation, Whitehouse’s FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) vote and Whitehouse’s take on the 2018 and 2020 elections all came under discussion. A contrast was made between our out of control military spending and the paucity off health care money spent on the mental health of veterans.
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And of course, Whitehouse was taken to task for his failure to speak out about the $1 billion fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant Invenergy seeks to place in the pristine forests of north west Rhode Island. Whitehouse, who once supported the project, now says it would be wrong for him to oppose it.
Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee, State Representative Michael Morin (Democrat, District 49, Woonsocket) and Woonsocket City Councilor Melissa Murray were in attendance.
I’ve arranged the videos below not in chronological order, but instead grouped them by category.
“We have, among other things, a chance to retake the Senate, said Whitehouse in his opening address to the crowd. “Six or seven months ago, I don’t think I could have said that with a straight face. But as the American people have seen the behavior of the Trump administration, we’ve seen a very strong shift.” As proof of his assertion, Whitehouse pointed to the recent Senate win in Alabama.
Whitehouse shared three concerns that he thinks will predominate his next few years in office.
1. Protect and improve our health care system
“Like Bernie Sander’s Medicare-for-All?” asked a man in the crowd.
“Which I’m co-sponsor of,” responded Whitehouse.
2. The attack coming on Medicare and Social Security
Republicans have been running up the deficit intentionally, as a way to justify cutting these programs, said Whitehouse. Whitehouse has joined with Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Vermont) and Sherrod Brown (Democrat, Ohio) to form the Defend Social Security Caucus.
3. Climate Change, which Whitehouse termed “protect and defend Rhode Island’s coastline.” The University of Rhode Island and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) are predicting a loss of 40 square miles of Rhode Island to the ocean due to sea level rise, said Whitehouse.
“What about the LNG in Providence? Will they move that?” asked environmental activist Lorraine Savard, referencing a CRMC decision to allow National Grid to construct a fracked gas liquefaction plant on the coast of Narragansett Bay. Whitehouse was silent on this issue when the CRMC approved it, and declined to respond to Savard’s comment.
4. Whitehouse lauded the bipartisan efforts to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. He says that he is “all in” on similar bipartisan efforts in the future.
“I think that the reason the shutdown lasted only one weekend is that so many of us agreed with you,” said Whitehouse. “I think there was a very strong feeling that we needed to do what we could, see if this would help. If there was a breakthrough, either from the President or from the Republicans then we could have taken advantage of that breakthrough, [but] as it was, the Democrats standing firm on that and actually getting some Republicans for it actually tended to bring the [remaining] Republicans together. So there were not any division to exploit to try to get something to move forward. When we realized that was the case that was the end of it and by Monday we had reversed course.
“And I was a strong advocate for getting out of that decision because I didn’t think it was going in the right direction at all. I think ultimately it would have hurt the DACA kids to be put in the position of being the reason why contracts didn’t go out, people got laid off and all the rest of the things that were going to happen.”
Whitehouse characterized the bipartisanship that blossomed in the wake of ending the shutdown a “wonderful moment” that was almost like a “little revolt” against Republican leadership. “If that sentiment keeps going… then we can do some very interesting things,” said Whitehouse.
“Don’t put yourself on the line on Friday just to renege on Sunday,” said Lauren Niedel. “You’re putting your faith in McConnell?””
“No,” said Whitehouse, “You know better than that. We’re putting our faith in 15 Republican colleagues who are publicly saying that they want a solution and they want to do this.”
“McConnell will block it unless there’s a fricking – what is the price tag now for the wall? – Which is totally reprehensible…” said Niedel. “When the shutdown started,” Niedel said, “[I thought] finally, there’s a backbone,” but, “a backbone isn’t closing the office for a weekend.”
“There were a lot off issues surrounding that vote,” said Whitehouse. “I think that if we thought that there was a win at the end of three, four or five days, if we thought we could get something significant accomplished, then there would have been more support for pursuing that.
“We were looking at a huge political blowback from everybody in America who would be affected by the shutdown,” said Whitehouse. “Putting that onto the backs of these DACA kids would have made it very challenging for them and would have played into the Republicans’ hands.
“This was backfiring,” said Whitehouse, “And it would have cost us our ability to win in November.”
“Well, I look at [Senator Elizabeth] Warren (Democrat, Massachusetts), I look at [Senator Edward] Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) and I look at Bernie,” countered Niedel.
Whitehouse asserted that ending the shutdown is actually a win, of sorts, for DACA kids. “Every once in a while it’s better to kick the field goal than to go for the Hail Mary, and lose as a result,” said Whitehouse. “We got a process that I believe we can count on. We have huge numbers of Republicans who have said, publicly, things they never would have said about DACA kids, that put them on record… we have public pressure that is still behind these kids… So did we get the Hail Mary we had hoped for? Nope, we sure did not.”
In response to a man who wants stronger immigration laws and more forced removals of undocumented immigrants, Whitehouse touted the possibility of bipartisan reform of the immigration system.
Most undocumented immigration happens due to the interests of big business, like agriculture, pointed out one woman. In truth, immigration in America is a net negative, as people are voluntarily leaving the country.
Whitehouse hopes that the recent news report revealing that President Trump attempted to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June will reinvigorate efforts to pass bills making it impossible for presidents to interfere in such investigations. The idea that the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt and that the FBI can’t be trusted is something “out in fake news land” said Whitehouse.
“For the first time in the bill, a warrant requirement has crept into the re-authorization of FISA,” said Whitehouse. FISA allows for warrant-less wiretapping. “I support that particular bipartisan effort and voted for it.”
Though elected Democrats are doing their jobs, “Democratic strategists are not out in front of anything,” said a woman. “The Party is betraying you guys [referring to Whitehouse] and betraying the workers.” She said that the Republicans put our ads in support of their policies, but the Democrats do not.
Democrats “have a very different funding structure [than Republicans],” said Whitehouse. “The Republicans can call up the Koch Brothers and say, ‘Here’s what we need’ and [the Koch] pledge to spend $450 million in this election.”
Whitehouse suspects that the Koch Brothers saved more money from the recent tax cuts than they spent in advertising money in swing states ginning up support for the tax cuts.
Citizens United is like the Death Star, said Whitehouse. “When the Star Wars crew wanted to attack the evil Empire…”
“That’s the Rebel Alliance…” said a man in the audience.
Whitehouse ignored the interruption. “They didn’t try to fight them in every single planet they went for the Death Star…”
“Well that’s because they didn’t…” continued the man, trying to explain the plot of Star Wars, before being shushed by his neighbors.
“And the Death Star of the political situation we’re in is Citizens United and dark money,” finished Whitehouse. If we could win that issue, 15 other issues could change.”
The two ways to attack Citizens United is through a Constitutional Amendment as Senator Thomas Udall (Democrat, New Mexico) has suggested, or by passing a law forcing disclosures for all political campaign donations.
Whitehouse doesn’t have a favorite for Democratic Presidential nominee in 2020. He immediately quashed the idea that he would run. Whitehouse is much more interested in the 2018 elections, where he hopes to take back the House and Senate.
Despite his assertion that he supports single payer health care and has signed onto Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill, Whitehouse has a series of caveats.
“We’ve got to make sure of a number of things,” said Whitehouse. “First we have to make sure that for people on Medicare that this isn’t taking away anything from them…
“We’ve got to make sure that Veterans understand that they don’t lose from this…
“We have union members who have given up wages, bargaining for years for good health and welfare plans. We’ve got to make sure that they aren’t made losers by this because they have rights and a stake in this as well,” said Whitehouse. “So I think its really important that we, I think we need to move in this direction.”
“We have to find some way of dealing with the insurance agencies,” interrupted a woman, addressing the elephant Whitehouse neglected to mention. “We don’t want health insurance. We want medicine. We want drugs. Medical Care. Not health insurers.”
Whitehouse then pointed to Medicare Advantage, a mixed private-insurance/government system. Single-payer and the elimination of insurance companies will destroy that option.
My opinion? Medicare-for-All is easy to support in a political climate where you know it won’t pass. But when push comes to shove, a Democratic Senate will have at least the four reasons Whitehouse cites above to stymie the idea. Advocates for single-payer need to push harder.
Senator Cory Booker (Democrat, New Jersey) joined with Republicans to prevent to import of lower cost prescription drugs from Canada.
“I am for importation,” said Whitehouse.
A very long and emotional story from a therapist who works with veterans and tries to prevent suicides. She was late to Whitehouse’s meeting because she was on the phone with a veteran who is today burying the 21st out of 35 members of her unit. The unit member had just committed suicide. Two of those in her unit who killed themselves were recipients of DACA. The veteran was contemplating suicide herself.
“There has to be a comprehensive approach, to not only just funding for weapons, but keeping keeping this person from blowing up 25 million people?”
“And it’s not about protecting us. It’s about protecting special interests like oil and gas,” chimed in Lauren Niedel.
“Putting that kind of money into the military blindly, said another woman, eliminates the possibility of funding for [veteran care], eliminates the possibility of us having health care for all, or any kind of Medicare-for-All… No, no.”
Whitehouse voted in support of the largest military budget ever last year, $696 billion, and allowed the continuation of the unauthorized wars in the Middle East. Senator Jack Reed and Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline also voted in support of the spending. The $696 billion was well beyond what President Donald Trump requested.
“I would ask that you not make anymore speeches on the floor of the Senate concerning the environment and climate change,” said Gael Taddeo. “Because when I talk to your staff, they say, ‘Oh, that’s a local issue, the power plant in Burrillville. You’ve never been in Burrillville!”
Whitehouse split hairs with Taddeo, saying he has been in Burrillville on the issue of the opioid epidemic, but of course Taddeo meant on the issue of the power plant.
“Joe Caizzo, [Whitehouse’s campaign manager] told me it’s a local issue,” said Taddeo. “Climate change is a global issue! So if you’re not going to stand up for us please don’t get on the floor of the Senate, because we know, we know, that’s not factual. What you say and what you do are two different things.”
“For what it’s worth,” responded Whitehouse, “I have a very strong belief that when something is subject to a rule of law proceeding like a trial, in which you have lawyers and evidence and appeal to courts, that that’s not a really good place for political pressure to be brought to bear.”
This is a different opinion than Whitehouse had two years ago. In an interview with Ted Nesi, Whitehouse said, “Rhode Island and a large part of Southern New England are on the wrong side of a couple of gas pipeline choke points, with the result that at certain times costs soar in Rhode Island because the choke point creates a supply-demand imbalance which causes prices to soar. And in other states that’s not happening.
“I don’t think it’s valuable from Rhode Island’s perspective to make Rhode Islanders pay high winter gas prices when it doesn’t change the overall complexion of the gas market,” continued Whitehouse. “So I am not objecting to that particular plant, because it’s a choke point issue.”
Whitehouse later pivoted to his “trust the process” mantra when his initial support for the project didn’t play well. I’d refer people to this piece.
Whitehouse compared giving his opinion on the fracked gas power plant in Burrillville to President Donald Trump trying to influence the grand jury convened to investigate his Russian connections.
“I understand,” said Whitehouse to anti-power plant activists holding signs in the audience. “How many times have we had the conversation?”
“Not enough, Mr. Whitehouse,” said Lorraine Savard, who had earlier been in discussions with Joe Caizzo about her sign. “Invenergy wants to use our water supply, here in Scituate. come on, Sheldon! You are our champion…”
“I apologize that I’m not going to agree with you about the Invenergy plant,” said Whitehouse.
“This is not only Invenergy,” said Savard.
“I trust the process,” said Whitehouse.
“The process is corrupt,” said Savard.
“We need a champion and we don’t have one,” said Gael Taddeo.
“i think it’s really dangerous for politicians to be playing around with that,” said Whitehouse. “But don’t think that my effort to solve this problem in Washington is anything less than sincere. There is no one who works harder on this issue.”
The video below ends with a few seconds from before the start of Whitehouse’s open house, where Joe Caizzo is attempting to negotiate with Lorraine Savard and Burrillville resident Kathy Martley.
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