By Miriam Raftery; Jonathan Goetz also contributed to this report
View full video of town hall: https://www.facebook.com/RepSusanDavis/videos/1499056013470282/
March 12, 2017 (San Diego) -- Concerns over healthcare reforms, deportations, attacks on public education, troops in Syria, climate change, and Trump’s Russian ties were among the issues raised by constituents of Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego) at a town hall forum yesterday. More than 1,000 people filled Montezuma Hall at San Diego State University to capacity.
Davis walked around the room greeting constituents individually before the meeting, fielded questions from an open mike for an hour and a half, then stayed after to speak with voters. It was a civil assembly, without the shouts and anger directed toward two local Republican Congressmen, who also held town halls yesterday. The crowd at Davis’ rally voiced mainly fears over actions by the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress.
“This has been a tough time… for most of us, for the country,” Davis said in opening remarks. “I’ve never really seen a time like this…It’s difficult to talk to you about what’s happening in Congress right now.” She said her office has been flooded with calls, adding, “I share your concerns at a very deep level.”
Davis noted, “We’ve been so busy defending against terrible executive orders and worrying about the latest dangerous 2 a.m. Tweet that we lose focus on the most important issues, which are jobs and the economy.” She called such distractions “frightening.”
The Congresswoman continued, “Our government agencies are understaffed…in some cases with people coming in who don’t believe in the agency’s purpose.” She also voiced concerns over problems in the Justice Department and in relations with our allies. “Our standing in the world is deteriorating rapidly,” she said. ”We are hearing that from friends around the world.”
The Congresswoman, a long-time champion of women’s rights, civil rights, LGTB rights, public education, military families, and voting rights, voiced concerns about Trump administration policies that seek to roll back protections. “I can’t believe where we are now,” she said. “We thought we had conquered most of the issues around voter access but they’re back with a vengeance.”
She noted that Democrats are in the minority in both houses of Congress, down by 47 seats in the House, which makes it difficult to block actions such as the healthcare bill moving through Congress. But she cited some successes, such as reversing a decision to gut ethics rules.
On Healthcare, she said Democrats are working to try to keep some good things in the Affordable Care Act but voiced frustration that Republicans have refused to sit down with Democrats and try to reform and improve the ACA. “We had hoped we could sit down with our colleagues and work that out, but as you can see, that’s not happening.”
She asked questions of the audience and passed around a questionnaire to learn how many had attended a town hall before or contacted her office in the past, and whether they believed compromise on occasion was a good idea or not.
She concluded, “I welcome your thoughts on what we should do next whether you support or oppose the Trump administration.” She asked the audience to be respectful of one another, and the crowd complied—a sharp contrast to the raucous crowds at other town hall rallies held here and across the country lately.
Constituents were allowed to ask up to two questions. Here are the issues they raised:
STUDENT LOAN DEBT
Douglas Crasher from the College Area voiced concerns over having his Social Security wages garnished to repay student loans he took out for his daughters’ education. “I had employment problems so my parental student loans have ballooned to $300,000,” he said.
Davis voiced empathy for those saddled with student loan debt, noting that this is a new problem due to the skyrocketing costs of public colleges and universities. “We will be working to be sure the way in which students have to pay for those loans is better,” she said, encouraging Crasher to contact her office on his own Social Security issue.
Crasher also voiced concern over Trump advisor Steven Bannon “who I perceive as evil. Quite frankly I feel he is a threat to the country,” drawing cheers. He asked if there is a way to get rid of Bannon, former publisher of Breitbart News, a site that has been a mouthpiece for the `alt right’ white supremacists, adding, “a better alternative would be to impeach the president.”
Davis acknowledged that the President has a right to choose his aides, but added that with “so much chaos in the White House today, I think that’s going to catch up with him. The way we move forward is investigate, investigate, investigate.”
She announced that on March 20th, the House Intelligence Committee is planning a major hearing on whether Russia influenced the 2016 election and other issues, though she doesn’t yet know if the hearing will be open or closed to the public and media. “It’s just the beginning,“ Davis predicted, adding that she has supported numerous resolutions and letters to move forward on investigations.
CORRUPTION IN GOVERNMENT
A woman from the climate action group San Diego 350 said that climate change needs to be front and center and that legislators need to work together. The problem, as she sees it, is “corruption in the government…How would you help to eliminate corruption?”
Davis noted that Trump has potential conflicts due to his business dealings around the world. She said she has voted for a resolution to force the president to release his taxes (drawing cheers) but that Republicans have blocked it.
“I’ve had a great opportunity to work with democracies on women’s empowerment around world and the one issue the women are interested in is corruption, and they look to us,” Davis said. “It’s unbelievable to me that we can’t break through this….The resolution was voted down 229 to 184 Feb. 27 to do exactly this.” But she pledged that Democrats will keep bringing back their resolution. “If we can break thru on this issue, some of the others will fall into place,” she stated. “There are many, many opportunities we have to investigation Russian influence in election…the question is whether our colleagues on other side of aisle have will to move forward and so far, we have not seen that.”
A woman asked what the House will do with the current bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. She also wanted to know if the Democratic caucus has tried to put forth its own bill to strengthen the ACA or potentially move forward to single payer healthcare, as Bernie Sanders has called for.
Davis said Democrats are focused on trying to protect benefits and protections in the ACA, but that Republicans are insisting on “a partisan bill, no compromises.” For example, “I brought forward an amendment that would protect women’s health” to assure that maternity services would be covered. She notes that before the ACA, only 12% of plans included maternity services. “Now just over 50% do, now that we have Medicaid expansion….50% of all births in the country now are related to MediCal and Medicaid…Women were basically a pre-existing condition under many healthcare plans,” she says of the lack of coverage for women’s health needs. Her amendment would also have provided women with direct access to doctors in obstetrics/gynecology, but Republicans want to remove all such provisions.
A Lemon Grove resident and business owner said she can’t afford to retire and can’t refinance her home due to student debt. One reason she can’t pay off those loans is high healthcare costs that she can’t afford. “I’m also very concerned with the ACA and what we see from the GOP and how they’re slashing or eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood,” she said.
Davis said of the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and replace it with a Republican healthcare plan, “What we’re seeing quite honestly is that they’re going to ask people to pay more and get less. That’s really what’s going on and it’s going to hurt those who need it least. “
The GOP plan to repeal taxes that paid for the ACA/Obamacare leaves no funding. “Without that, there is no program,” she said bluntly. She added that she thinks the Congressional Budget Office will come up with some numbers that are “very surprising” on costs of the Republican healthcare plan. She also objects to people losing healthcare if the ACA is repealed. “We’re looking at 50 million people losing coverage,” she said, “That’s not acceptable.”
IMMIGRANT S AND DEPORTATIONS
A woman from Chula Vista, active in her church’s social justice ministry, said, “I’m so concerned about so many of my friends and neighbors that are frightened right now because they are undocumented or they are immigrants but not citizens, and they are afraid there will be a massive deportation.” She talked about a local girl having nightmares about her mother being taken away. “We have a president who frightens children. What can be done to allay their fears? Most of them have no way to legalize their status. We’ve got to do something about that. That’s going to tear huge holes through our communities.” She added, “I’m married to man who is a refugee…It breaks my heart to hear about people fleeing wars, often as a result of US policies, and we’re turning our back on them. I would like us to take as many of those people as we can.”
Davis affirmed that America benefits from the contributions of immigrants. “I can assure you that I’ve been speaking out,” she said, adding that she will do “everything she can” to help including keeping communications open between her staff and ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) officials.
“I agree with you that there is great fear in the community,” she said, then praised the faith community for its efforts to help people understand the issues, such as the need for families to have a plan such as knowing where children can go in an emergency if they come home and no one is there, due to a parent being detained for deportation. She said the need for such actions “makes me furious….I’m glad to be where I am and to hopefully make a difference,” she added.
Jenny Pederson, a member of the Calif. Retired Teachers Association member thanked Davis for supporting retired teachers’ efforts to get Social Security fairness and protect pensions. Then she asked, “What are you going to do to keep [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos in line? “
Ranking chair on the Higher Education committee and a former school board member, Davis sees education as the best and often only way for young people to have better futures. She pledged to try and work with DeVos and Rev. Jerry Falwell who Trump appointed to head a task force on higher education and convince them that public education should be supported, but admitted that will be difficult. “90% our kids our educated in public schools ...my kids were in public schools,” said Davis, who voiced concern over statements made by DeVos and about HR 610, “a bill that anybody in education should be very concerned about…It would more or less gut early education and secondary ed.” She added that the GOP is also “trying to take away protections for students in our schools who need additional assistance in addition to children who are military connected.” As for protecting Social Security and teachers’ retirement issues she’s championed, she said candidly, “In this atmosphere it will be a tough sell but you just keep working at it.”
A man from La Mesa voiced concern over “tanks rolling into Syria” reported on the news this week. “What are the ramifications? Is it good for us to get engaged on the ground?” he asked.
Davis made a troubling revelation. “Under this administration, we haven’t had a sole briefing on Syria and we are all asking for that…The great concern we have would be moving into another civil war. She acknowledged it is difficult to know who our friends are in the region, where the U.S. has sided with Kurds fighting ISIS while trying to avoid sending ground troops. “It was a very difficult decision for President Obama to have stayed out of that,“ she said. “I’m very distraught over what’s happening in Syria. I wish I knew the right answer.” She added that military leaders at the time were clear: “If we don’t know how you will get out of a situation, you ought not get in.” She called sending tanks into Syria “a risky move,” adding. “I do want to support those in there fighting against ISIS, but we’ve been training others to do that and that’s strategy we probably ought to stick with…”
Cindy Caldwell wants to see a Constitutional amendment to make voting a requirement, like jury duty or paying taxes. She asked, “If we had all the people voting, our voice would be heard loud and clear. Will you make a promise to put forth a bill to make voting a requirement of every citizen?”
Davis noted that Constitutional amendment process is complex. “What I’ve been working on is making sure we have many different avenues for people voting…In California we have ‘no excuse’ vote by mail. About 20 states do not allow that,” meaning you must have a doctor’s note if you’re sick. She also voiced concern over voter suppression tactics such as some Secretaries of State removing polling places in some communities. She said her focus is on trying to protect people’s rights to vote, working with members of Congress such as civil rights leader John Lewis on that effort.
A Poway math teacher raised doubts about the integrity of the vote in the 2016 presidential election. He noted that in swing states, there was an 8% discrepancy between exit polls and the tallied results. “When we monitor elections abroad, anything 2% or more is considered suspect,” he observed. “Would you be willing to sponsor or cosponsor legislation to assure that when votes are tallied with computers, we have a bullet proof way to audit the vote? In fairness, Trump would not have won electoral vote if they had been fairly counted,” he contended.
Davis said she’d be happy to talk about that, and reiterated her mantra to “investigate, investigate, investigate.” She added, “There are so many issues about voting. There’s such an attempt to undermine the vote that I want to address those [issues] as well.”
AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AND VALUES
David Porter from La Mesa voiced frustrations with Democrats being too willing to compromise, “bringing a knife to a gunfight” against uncompromising Republicans. “We have to rewrite the rules.” He voiced concerns on many issues including the Trump administration’s attacks on the environment, healthcare and social programs, as well as concerns about the rise of racism fueled by the alt right and the potential for military action to be used to distract from other actions.
“I used to think of America as the good guy,” he said. “The world looked to America to be a model of democracy and social progress. Now we’re feared and distrusted, a role for fascist governments with immigration issues and gerrymandered voting…how we will we expect the world to treat us when we’re the refugees?”
Davis replied, “he one thing we want to look at, as we think about who we are as a country and what our values are, is the budget coming forward right now…and what I see is a move to gut programs that …protect those who needs help the most.” She added that it’s easy not to compromise when you believe government should provide a safety net”
She also addressed concerns over Trump slashing foreign aid. “We also want to be standing up for people beyond our shores. That’s important. I worry as does (Secretary of Defense) General Mattis, who I have great deal of respect for, that we are looking to take money away from programs such as the State Department or foreign operations in order to fund the Pentagon.” She said she is speaking up for that as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “That also represents our values and that’s one of the messages that we have to send around the world.”
VIOLENCE AGAINST MINORITIES AND LGBT COMMUNITIES
Alexandra Cogan, a volunteer with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, praised Davis for having “more courage” than others.” She voiced concern over “a rising wave of racially motivated violence and attacks happening all across this country. It’s happening here in San Diego…I reside in Banker’s Hill. We are terrified. A couple of weeks ago, the owner of the Lips Nightclub was savagely beaten…We have an administration that does not protect us and if anything, they instigate it. We are terrified. How can you protect us?”
Davis said her staff has good relationships with law enforcement and urged people to notify her office if they are aware of information, even if someone is afraid to speak directly with law enforcement. “Please call us, so we have more ammunition to talk to our police.” She supports community policing and efforts to deescalate violence targeting minorities. But ultimately she believes the long-term answer is to help young people avoid a path from “school to prison. That’s unacceptable…almost normalized and it’s wrong. I had a juvenile justice bill last year that tried to address part of that.”
Cogan pressed, “Part of the problem is rise in white nationalist and violence they perpetrate against our community. In an LGTB community, what can we do right now?”
Davis urged staying in touch with law enforcement, adding, “We’ll work together on it. There’s not a solution per se,” she said, adding that while efforts continue to protect civil rights at the federal level, for now, “it really comes back to neighborhoods and trying to get some help on what’s going on.” She said that while critics ask why so many people hate Trump, in reality “people fear Trump.”
A woman and small business owner says the administration’s lack of talk about addressing climate change “makes me feel like I don’t have a future. It makes everyone my age feel we don’t have a future…What are you doing to make that a priority?”
Davis noted that Democrats have been trying to protect the environment, such as with alternative energy strategies. But she adds, “Right now, what’s so frustrating is we have somebody in charge of these areas who doesn’t believe we have a problem. “Although some Republicans do believe climate change is a problem, it’s hard to get them to push back against the administration because in polls of voters, many don’t check off climate change among their priorities, Davis said.” I’m just worried that we have so many deniers today, and that will totally be at our peril.”
A scientist asked, “What are you doing to promote science in the wake of alternative facts? “
Davis said she helped work to increase funding for the sciences in the prior administration, adding, “I think we need more scientists. I want kids going into the sciences.”
A La Mesa resident noted that a Pentagon study found $1.25 billion in spending could be eliminated by streamlining its bureaucracy, but the Pentagon has buried that report, according to Reuters. Now that Trump wants to repeal the sequester and authorize $50-$90 billion in increased military spending, the man asked Davis to introduce an amendment to require that no increased military spending or repeal of the sequester could be made unless the report was addressed.
Davis replied, “That’s a good idea. We are in discussions about the report.” She said there is room to reduce costs of contracting such as eliminating duplicating by the Pentagon, but adds, I’m afraid under this administration, they won’t need to make those changes…The money will be there.”
Navy veteran Ronald Lewis said his rent has doubled in San Diego. Besides affordable housing, he also voiced concerns that nobody in Trump’s cabinet or the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been willing to “keep President Trump in check.”
Davis said housing is a tough issue since many people want to live in San Diego, which has a higher cost of living than many other areas. She said it’s really the responsibility of the City Council to increase affordable housing locally. “In Congress, we’re looking at ways to forestall foreclosures,” she added, noting that her staff has helped many people facing foreclosure to save their homes.
As for Trump, she said, “There are a few adults so far in the cabinet” but repeated that investigations are needed. “That’s really what we have to do.”
VETERANS AND SENIORS
A veteran thanked Davis for her support on immigration issues. His father, a Latvian immigrant, served in the U.S. army when he wasn’t a citizen. Now, his father is 84 and hard of hearing. “A number of senior citizens around San Diego need a voice and a way to get feedback to you,” he said, adding that our veterans need to be taken care of after serving our country.
Davis said she has been working to help veterans and those in the military. She criticized Trump for wanting to “basically take money from the Coast Guard who protects us, to build a wall. That doesn’t many any sense.”
The veteran also voiced concern about Social Security and that the Republican healthcare plan would hurt senior citizens disproportionately (it allows seniors to be charged five times more than young people. The AARP has warned that people ages 51-64 will be the hardest hit.)
Davis said his concern about the healthcare bill is true but that it will likely go forward despite opposition from Democrats opposed to cutting healthcare and from some Tea Party groups like the Freedom Caucus that think it doesn’t go far enough in slashing benefits. “The bill is designed to make it harder for seniors to get the medical care that they need …When it comes to who the losers are in that, I’m afraid it is going to be the seniors before they get their Medicare,” she said.
A man said he’s proud of his ethnic heritage and asked if instead of referring to Russians or Syrians, could Davis and others be specific when referring to the Russian government, Syrian government or other leadership. Davis acknowledged, “You make a good point.”
SEX TRAFFICKING AND SEXUAL ASSAULTS
Another constituent asked about plans to combat sex trafficking, particularly involving foreign nationals in San Diego amid today’s anti-immigrant attitudes. Davis agreed this is a “horrendous” problem and said there are supportive people working on it locally.
A voter voiced outrage that Trump was caught on tape admitting to “the crime of sexual assault” and wanted to know if that was being investigated. She also expressed concern over “19,000 sexual assaults in the military. If women come forward and tell about it, they are thrown out…It’s one reason why so many women veterans are on the streets, because they have been sexually assaulted and can’t get jobs.”
Davis agreed that sexual assaults in the military is a big problem and she’s sponsored legislation to address that. She added that there are now “laws we’ve put in place” to punish people such as those who recently posted nude members of military women without consent. “We have more women coming forward now. That wasn’t happening before.” She said sexual assaults in the military are particularly harmful because soldiers view the military like family “and are traumatized when sexual assault occurs by someone they trusted. “I’m also dealing with sexual assaults on campuses, including this one unfortunately,” she added. As for Trump’s alleged sexual assault, she said that’s not likely to be included among the many investigations going on.
A man praised Davis “terrific voting record” on most issues, but added that he can’t understand her vote for the Trans Pacific Trade Pact which was “negotiated in secret…it had a poison pill, the investor state dispute settlement, whereby they can have the lawyers whose only obligation is to corporations override t our labor laws, environmental laws…” Congress killed the TPP after voter objections before Obama left office. The voter asked if Davis would support the TPP if it returns, though Trump also opposed the TPP.
Davis said, “I don’t think we’ll see another TPP.” She noted that San Diego received $200 billion from trade with Mexico in 2014 alone. The TPP, a trade pact with Pacific Rim nations, sought to level the playing field. “We pushed our trade people to get as much as they could in labor negotiations…We weren’t successful and President Obama was not successful” in this,” she added. “It’s possible we may look back in a number of years and wonder why China is in charge of all things trade.”
Jeffrey Kaplan, an SDSU teacher, said, “Some opinion leaders have identified possible grounds for impeaching President Trump including violations of the emoluments clause in the Constitution, his refusal to separate himself fully from his business interests, collusions with Russia …and his Muslim ban …Which do consider the strongest grounds?”
Davis stated, “We’re talking about high crimes.” She said she has signed on to numerous bills and letters calling for investigations. “I think that’s the first step.”
Steven Turner of North Park stated, “I think that our stress on Trump, Bannon and the clowns running this show are misplaced. The Republican Party has been moving to right since the 1960s. since white racists left the Democratic party and joined the Republican party. We need to start pointing that out. I’d like to hear the conversation move from one of Trump being the problem to Republican ideology being the problem.” He added that impeaching Trump alone would leave others with similar ideologies.
Davis agreed that “a lot of my colleagues are enabling this to happen, even though privately they’ll say they don’t feel that way…Changing the composition of Congress is what we need to do.” She noted that Congressional rules prevent her from talking about organizing or campaigning during an official town hall meeting.
A man with the National Coalition for the Blind of California thanked Davis for her support of the Accessible Instructional Material for higher Education Act. He wants to be sure electronic educational materials are available to blind students in a timely manner. He brought a student with him, who told Davis, “A lot of times we end up getting our books halfway through the semester when class is almost over.” That’s caused delays in his education, he added.
Davis stated, “I think everybody agrees on this…Because of your advocacy it’s going to happen and we’ll keep working with you.
Robert Black asked about a bill that would repeal protections for vulnerable students including Native Americans and English as a second language students. Davis replied, “I’m going to do everything that I can to kill that bill.”
Robert Germann asked Davis to support Senator Charles Schumer’s request for a National Transportation Safety investigation into small plane accidents, citing problems at Gillespie Field. “Last year, San Diego County set the record for small plane fatalities and now already within a month and a half we have had a fatality” he said. “It doesn’t seem like your office is paying attention.”
Davis said, “We will certainly follow up on that,”” adding that she’ll check to see if Schumer needs a House sponsor for his bill.
A realtor from Lemon Grove noted that the Republicans are trying to repeal Dodd Frank protections that “allowed housing markets to stabilize” after the last recession. A provision to require banks and lenders to consider their client’s best interests over their own was set to go into effect in April, but now the GOP aims to repeal that. She said realtors must already put their clients’ interests first, and wants to see the financial industry do so, too.
Davis said, “You are correct. They will go to great lengths to change that, and we have to fight it.”
A Golden Hills resident said her white collar job has become obsolete. “I’m concerned that the way our economy is evolving, jobs just might not be the solution because everything becomes automated. “She asked about options such as a 30-day work week or guaranteed incomes.
Davis replied, “The long-range answer is preparing our young people for jobs of the future and making sure have introductions as young as middle school (to career options) so they can be creative in work that they are doing. We may not be able to help everybody in the market today,” she acknowledged, adding, “If we can do some of that work together, I’d love to hear your ideas.”
TRUMP WIRETAPPING CLAIM
A Navy wife said, “I’m proud of my country,” and agreed with an earlier speaker who said we need our country to continue being great. She asked if President Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that former President Obama wiretapped him, on top of “birther” accusations by Trump that Obama wasn’t born in America, could constitute libel. “Is there a possible suit there?”
Davis replied, “I don’t think we know that yet. The hearing on March 20th will cover that issue,” among others involving the Trump administration. She praised work being done in the courts, adding, “Our courts are really our backup right now.”
A woman asked for ideas on specific areas where Davis sees potential for compromise with Republicans. Davis said roads and bridges need to be repaired, so “there may be opportunities for projects to come to SD.” But she added, “If what they really have in mind is toll roads, or pipelines, that I don’t support. That’s a different story.”
STANDING UP VS. COMPROMISING
Steve Montgomery, a retired educator in North Park, said he respects Davis and has never been to a town hall meeting before. He quoted Mahatmas Gandhi, who said, “Civil duty becomes a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless or corrupt.” Montgomery added, “Anybody can see that the Trump administration has become lawless and corrupt. I’m angry as hell and I’m asking you to get out of your comfort zone. You’ve been an obedient servant…I’m asking you to be disobedient. Will you please grab the microphone and shout for us?”
Davis responded, “I ‘m definitely out of my comfort zone.” She said that Congressman John Lewis, who risked his life in the past to stand up for civil rights, says it’s important to set a goal. “What can we do to really make a difference?” said Davis, who promised to speak out but added that she also works to influence colleagues to change the minds of other members of Congress. She added that there is a “sweet spot of trying to be very forceful and trying to work as hard as I can and listen to people, and also lend a hand at times when I think it’s appropriate. I know that I influence people when I do that.”