United State Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) held a town hall style meeting with Rhode Island residents at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) Campus in Warwick Sunday afternoon. Around 25 people came out to hear Whitehouse and ask him questions about his policies, his votes on important issues and about his continued efforts in a Washington that is controlled by Republicans.
Whitehouse was introduced by Rhode Island State Representative Joseph McNamara (Democrat, District 19, Warwick), who is also the chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Party (RIDP). McNamara characterized Whitehouse as a Senator who stands against unqualified Donald Trump cabinet nominations.
Whitehouse spoke about what he calls “issue one,” that is, dark money in politics and the use of that money to favor the interests of corporations over the general public. Whitehouse cited a Princeton study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, which demonstrates no correlation between what citizens want and what Congress does, but a high correlation between what corporations want and what Congress does. This, Whitehouse said, as he has numerous times, is the effect of the United States Supreme Court‘s Citizens United decision.
Whitehouse guessed that upon passage of his Disclose Act, about two-thirds of the dark money will go away because the people behind this money don’t want to be identified. Whitehouse wants to go after the Koch Brothers’ climate denial operation. “Climate denial is the original fake news,” said Whitehouse.
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Whitehouse also spoke on the possibility that the 2018 elections could see Democrats take both the House and the Senate. This could possibly stop Trump from stocking the courts with judges pushing a right-wing agenda.
“There is so much to be fixed by having any of the two houses, House or Senate, back in Democratic hands,” said Whitehouse. “Right now it’s a monopoly and because we can’t bring up issues, we just never talk about them.”
The first question from the audience followed up on the possibility that Trump might stack the court. Whitehouse was asked if the Republican’s behavior in blocking Barrack Obama‘s nomination of Merrick Garland established a precedent.
Whitehouse agreed that it had, agreeing that unless Trump were to pick a “sensible” nominee, a Democratically controlled Senate would not even hold hearings.
Another expressed concern about the growing power of Sinclair Broadcast Group and the pending merger that would increase the right-wing company’s reach and power. “You should be concerned,” said Whitehouse. Sinclair recently came under fire after Media Matters released a video showing news readers from stations across the country reading identical, company crafted statements. Seeing Frank Colleta in the Media Matters clip was “heartbreaking,” said Whitehouse.
To stop the Sinclair merger or its abuse of power, we need to “get control back of the FCC and the Department of Justice.” The entire Sinclair situation has been made worse by the existence of “fake news,” which Whitehouse says has been “weaponized.”
The raft of Republicans retiring from Congress surprised Whitehouse. “There were a few who headed out the door with #MeToo getting ready to bite them in the rear end,” said Whitehouse, but others are leaving because they can no longer bear to be a part of a Republican Party. Whitehouse suspects that Speaker Paul Ryan is leaving because he sees the “blue wave” coming and that he’s a little bit embarrassed by some of the things he’s had to do under Trump.
Jonathan Daly-LaBelle, a constituent, reminded Whitehouse that having a Democrat in Congress is no guarantee that the Trump Agenda will be slowed down. Newly elected Alabama Senator “Doug Jones voted for Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State,” said Daly-LaBelle.
Jones is better because he moved us a seat towards a majority, countered Whitehouse, adding, “I’m no fan of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.” Whitehouse voted against confirming Pompeo in that position, but did vote for him as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), despite his record of supporting torture, and anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim statements.
Getting the budget under control is a bipartisan effort, though Whitehouse thinks he might take a direct hand. “There’s a chance, depending on how things break through the pecking order, I could be chairman of the budget committee,” said the Senator.
Warwick City Councilmember Richard Corley asked, “How it can be that voters voted for Bernie Sanders and… that didn’t even come up at the [Democratic] Convention?”
“I think we have to take lessons from that into the next election,” said Whitehouse. “As I’ve said earlier, I think the worst thing we can do is divide ourselves by re-litigating past elections. So to me, the question is, ‘What are we going to do about the superdelegates, people who are committed first, before the [election] results come in.”
Then Whitehouse, without addressing that question, shifted to the problem of finding a Democratic presidential candidate to challenge Trump in 2020.
RIDP Chair McNamara rose to take the question. “Two months ago the National Democratic Committee met in Washington DC. They voted to accept the recommendations made by the Unity Reform Commission of the Democratic National Committee. Part of those reforms are mandating that a percentage of each state’s caucus and superdelegates reflect the primary decision of that state. So prospectively, the issues and reforms that you’re looking for, are taking place. And that was one of the first big steps and as a party chair, and a superdelegate, I don’t have any problems with that… those reforms are taking place so we will not repeat that. So stay tuned, but the process has been set in motion.”
“Everything for me comes back to, ‘Do we win in 2020?'” added Whitehouse.
Daly-LaBelle said that the superdelegate situation, in which Sanders won 55 percent of the vote and received 12 delegates while Clinton received 43 percent of the vote and earned 20 delegates demonstrates to people that, “their vote doesn’t matter.” He posited that Trump won the election in part due to these kind of actions by the Democratic Party.
Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is “perhaps the most disgraceful person to serve in the cabinet,” said Whitehouse in response to another question. “The good news is that he’s also wretched as a person. So his conduct in office is as bad as his corruption and policies.” It’s all going to blow up in his face, added the Senator, saying, “The other good news is that “he is not very good at what he does… he hasn’t been all that effectual.”
Daly-Labelle asked why Whitehouse, who had earlier been worried about “exploding deficits” voted to approve the largest military budget ever.
“You’ve got to remember that we are in the minority,” said Whitehouse. “We don’t have a single gavel, and we don’t have the White House. So the Republicans crafted the budget.”
Democrats bargained, said Whitehouse, saying that they wanted equivalent funding on the domestic side to go forward with the budget.
“We were lucky here,” said Whitehouse. “We got one of the best domestic budgets we’ve ever seen as a result of the compromise.
On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Whitehouse said he is extremely clever and calculating, a master of the art of process. As for the possibility that Trump may fire Robert Mueller, Whitehouse said that despite McConnell’s stonewalling on a bill that would prevent Trump from doing so, the legislation is ready to go if Trump tries anything.
It was at this point that United States Representative James Langevin (Democrat, Rhode Island) entered the room. Given that Rhode Island may lose a seat in the House due to falling population, an accurate census is extremely important. Langevin and Whitehouse spoke to the importance of an accurate census, and said that the census must be disconnected from the law enforcement apparatus and anti-immigrant mechanisms of the Trump Administration.
A question on the census that will ask about the immigration status of United States residents is an attempt to scare people into not answering the census.
“My personal feeling is that if we win in 2018, we’ve got to start passing things, and forcing some real fights,” said Whitehouse. When Democrats last had power, “we walked away from a bunch” of real fights, said Whitehouse, “and we should never let that happen again.” Issues like immigration, cap-and-trade, dark money should have been fought for under Obama, said Whitehouse, acknowledging these as Democratic Party failures.
You can watch the entire town hall here:
Whitehouse’s next Town Hall will be at 6:30pm on Tuesday, May 1, at the Davey Lopes Recreation Center on 227 Dudley Street in Providence. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza will be joining and there will be interpretation available.
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