By Miriam Raftery
Video by Paul Kruze
Photos: Protesters hold up red "disagree" signs (left) at town hall hosted by Rep. Duncan Hunter (right).
March 12, 2017 (Ramona) -- Around 300 people packed the Ramona Main Stage yesterday for a town hall meeting held by Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, with about 750 more gathered outside and in a nearby park to protest or show support for their representative.
Bill Finks from the American Legion in Julian opened with a prayer, acknowledging that these are “turbulent times” and asking for unity among all religions. He quoted Thomas Jefferson, stating, “Peace, strength and wisdom be with you.”
But peace and unity seemed illusive qualities during the town hall, where people concerned about Trump’s policies and Hunter’s stances appeared to outnumber supporters even in this conservative community. The mood was similar to that at town halls across the nation, where many members of Congress even in traditionally safe districts have been confronted by large crowds of constituents angry over the rapid-fire changes occurring under the Trump administration.
Loyalists showed support for Hunter’s stances on building a border wall, restricting immigration and supporting a strong national defense, while critics faulted his stances on health care, immigration crackdowns, the environment, and Syrian military intervention. Many in the crowd also sought an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, which Hunter declined to support.
Hunter thanked those who turned out. “Whether you like it or not, you’ll always know where I stand. “ in his opening remarks, he praised what he views as progress since Donald Trump took office. “I’m ecstatic to have Donald Trump as President,” he said, drawing cheers and boos.
Hunter said he backs Trump because he “believes in Americanism” and because Trump will make the border secure by building a “wall, not a fence.” He noted that San Diego already has a double border wall. “My Dad built that wall with earmarks,” he said, then criticized former President Obama for what he views as lax immigration policies. Hunter also voiced support for President Trump expanding deportations of illegal aliens “who committed any kind of crime.” The Congressman also praised Attorney General Jeff Sessions for asking for resignations of every U.S. Attorney left from the Obama administration.
He voiced support for growing the U.S. economy by “buying and hiring American” and for revising the tax code so that taxpayers filing returns “can put it on a postcard and send it back in.”
Then he announced, “We’re gonna repeal Obamacare [the Affordable Care Act], drawing huge boos from most of the audience. Members of the group Indivisible held up red “disagree” signs. But Hunter insisted “Everybody’s healthcare cost has gone up. The cost of doctors is going up.” He remained adamant that instead of fixing the ACA, he would only support repeal and replacement with a Republican alternative that the American Medical Association and the American Association of Retired Persons have said will raise, not lower healthcare costs for most Americans, particularly seniors.
Hunter, a military veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, also voiced support for a strong military.
Questions from the audience were submitted on cards randomly drawn from a bucket. Those whose cards were called were invited to read their question aloud at a microphone. (Questions from people who were in line but couldn’t get inside were not read.)
The first question came from a veteran (photo, right) who asked if there was a way to provide ID for vets to avoiding racial profiling. “I am documented, but I am afraid of being profiled. “ He said he has already been stopped and profiled by Border Patrol inside the U.S.
Hunter said IDs were not needed because “nobody should be profiled for the way they look. That’s illegal. If cops profile they’re in the wrong and should be gone after.”
Next, a woman named Michelle (photo, far left) asked, “Will you oppose bills to dismantle the EPA [Enviornmental Protection Agency] and removal of environmental protections?”
Hunter replied, “No. in fact, we’ve already voted for a bunch of bills to dismantle the EPA.” (This drew a chorus of boos from many in the audience.) Hunter continued, “The EPA destroyed American businesses….There’s a way to have clean air and water with common sense principles.” He did not explain how this would occur or what regulations if any he might support. “The most recent environmental disaster in San Diego was caused by Mexico,” he said, citing a massive sewage spille. “If that was a U.S. company we could fine them $10,000 a day.”
David Richardson said he served on the former Rep. Hunter’s immigration committee and took issue with immigration policies. “You can be a better Congressman than your father,” he said, noting that “Central America is a mess today.” He added, “I have a Constitution your dad signed. I was born to a mother who was an illegal alien…You have a moral obligation to all the people.”
Then he added, “Please don’t put the pressure on your son” to follow in his footsteps by running for Congress.
Hunter said of his son, “He ain’t doing this, I guarantee you! He’ll get a real job.”
Richardson pressed, “Mexico is our neighbor. It’s our friend.”
Hunter said, “We should all be happy; for the first time we are going to put Americans first, just for a little while,” citing declines in education and healthcare problems. “We’ve tried to help Mexico for years now.” Hunter said securing the border is needed to protect not only against Mexican migrants but also people from China, Turkey, Iran and other countries he says have tried crossing the U.S. border. The U.S. has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico to train police, judges, and military to handle cartels “but they have to want to help themselves.”
A woman named Emily (photo, right) wearing a “pussycat” hat like those in the woman’s march criticized Hunter over campaign finance irregularities including numerous personal bills charged to his campaign including a family vacation, jewelry and more.
Hunter said he paid back $12,000 initially and another $50,000 later, 150% of what his internal audit found, and announced it before the election. “I take responsibility for it and I fixed it…end of story,” he said.
Elizabeth from Santee said she works in Social Services with people who have disabilities. “Our most vulnerable people in the population stand to lose the most on the healthcare bill (Republicans’ proposed replacement for Obamcare). She asked about Hunter’s position.
Hunter said the bill is 123 pages and that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything without reconciliation; several Republicans object to the bill so it will probably have to go to reconciliation which means only things with direct budget consequences can be addressed in the reconciliation process.
“I would like full, 100% repeal” he said of the Affordable Heatlhcare Act/Obamacare, darwing loud boos from most constitutents present. He then called for block grants of Medicaid to the states. As for the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, Hunter said, “I’m probably going to vote for it.”
He said that after passage and approval by President Trump, it will then be up to Health and Human Services Director Tom Price to implement. “He will do good things,” Hunter predicted. He also voice support for allowing healthcare insurance policies to be sold across state times to increase competition “Just like with car insurance,” drawing applause from some supporters present. “Competition works in everything we do,” he said.
Democrats have criticized the replacement bill for being likely to cause tens of thousands of people to lose insurance and raise rates for others. Another key criticism has been that Republicans have not released any cost estimate for their replacement bill or how they would pay for it.
Hunter suggested preliminary numbers from the Congressional Budget Office may not be what Republicans hoped to hear. “We are arguing with the CBO score, on how they are scoring this,” he said.
He introduced a doctor, James Veltmeyer, who ran for Congress unsuccessfully against Susan Davis to try and speak on the healthcare issue, but the crowd drowned out the speaker, interrupting with angry chants of “Not my Congressman” by those who wanted to move on with more questions. Hunter asked the crowd to be respectful but some continued interrupting.
The doctor said he works 80 hours a week and believes “patients should have more access to me.” He advocating “taking the government out of healthcare” to avoid “interfering with the patient-doctor relationship.”
The next questioner asked if Hunter would commit to another town hall at a larger venue in April. Hunter agreed to hold another town hall and seek a larger space, but not necessarily during the April Congressional recess. “I’m not going to give a commitment on time,” he said, drawing rumbles from the crowd and red “disagree” signs flashed.
An older man asked, “How will you assure access for citizens to the poor to afford healthcare” after the Medicaid expansion is cut?"
Hunter said he backs block grants for states as he trusts states, counties and cities to handle healthcare issues more than the federal government. “The key is bringing id down to the lowest level possible,” he said.
As for complaints about costs and affordability of healthcare under the Republican replacement plan, Hunter made clear, “We’re not guaranteeing healthcare to everyone. We’re guaranteeing access.”
In other words, if you can’t afford it, you may be left without healthcare insurance.
Gloria Chadwick (photo, right), a registered nurse and long-serving director on the Grossmont Healthcare District Board, asked a question about healthcare benefits for veterans who don’t have access to the Veterans Administration for certain conditions. Then she announced, “Because of your corruption, I’m going to run against you.”
Hunter said of veterans with healthcare needs, “I don’t think it’s in the taxpayer’s interest to pay for everything that’s not service related…I was disappointed in President Trump’s appointment to the VA. Here’s how you solve this. You get rid of it.” He wants to see the VA focus on patients with traumatic brain injuries or parts of their faces blown off, while telling everyone else, “Here’s a card, go wherever you want.” Not every veteran lives near a VA hospital, he noted, so this could help those who live far away get care.
Richard Niles commented on high healthcare costs, stating that a family member had to make a hard choice between an abortion of spending $40,000 to have a baby, but fortunately was able to pay for the delivery. Then he asked a question on ethics. “Why did you think it was acceptable to vote to s hut the ethics commission down?”
Hunter said the Commission was created by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and was a “fairly liberal group”, arguing that the House already had an ethics committee so the commission wasn’t needed.
(Fact check: Pelosi did lead efforts to create the commission, but it is bipartisan and was created after the House Ethics Committee failed to take action even against such obvious ethical violations as those committee by Rep. Randy Duke Cunninghman, who was convicted of bribery or members embroiled in the ABSCAM bribery scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.)
A woman named Bethany from El Cajon stated, “As we find out more about the new healthcare bill, healthcare will be less affordable and many will lose their healthcare [insurance].” She pointed out the Republican bill has an “age-based tax credits” and asked how Hunter would address constituents who will be losers under the bill.
Hunter claimed, “Obamcare is falling apart. It’s put people out of work.” He thins as we grow the economy and put more money in people’s pockets, they will be able to access healthcare. Pressed about age-based tax credits, he answered, “I’m still looking into it,” adding that his position on wanting to repeal Obamacare has long been clear when people elected him. “It’s not like I became a conservative yesterday.”
A woman (photo, left) said her son moved to Arizona and now can’t afford healthcare there. “That’s why I want full repeal,” she said, drawing cheers from conservatives in the audience.
Hunter says he wants to “demonopolize and put choices back into healthcare, not the gold,l silver and bronzes choices in Obamacare.”
A military veteran said that Syria is “an absolute mess” with different factions fighting each other. News reports this week report U.S. tanks on the ground in Syria. “Aside from defeating ISIS, what are the U.S. goals in Syria?” he asked.
Hunter offered his most in-depth response on this question. “Before Trump won, he talked about working with our allies against radical Islam,” he said. “Trump needs to work with Russia and absolutely destroy and crush ISIS…We now have Marines’ artillery in Syria.” He said that’s because “they’re fast in and fast out.” His message to ISIS? “We’re gonna chew you up and spit you out.”
He added, “This goes along with the new travel ban.” He acknowledged the Trump’s first travel ban was “done by the seat of the pants” but that the new one is better because it still bans people from six countries but not Iraq. He said those six countries are “failed states” that often can’t provide vital rcords.
Then Hunter expounded on what he calls the “Hunter Doctrine,” adding, “Here’s what I think you do in the Middle East. You kick ass and you leave.” He added, “You can’t help people who don’t share the same Judeo Christian values.” That drew some gasps from the crowd. Hunter clarilfied, “Americans share this value: life matters. Radical Islamists, they don’t value life. They will kill women and have their kids strap on bombs and blow themselves up. …If ou do that, we’re gonna kill you or put you in Guantanamo.” But he added, “If you’re our friend, we’ll bend over backwards to help you.”
He said he opposes the approach of building schools or dams to win friends in the Middle East. “You’ve got to get rid of bad guys…I put forward a bill…put men and women who served with us in the front of the line. Their families are under threat…put thin first, because they’ve earned it.”
The next question came from Darrell Beck. “Because the President has been given so much trouble on incoming refugees, is it possible to have a permanent immigration ban and vetting on all foreign nations, just as many or our ancestors were required to go through in Ellis Island?”
Hunter said a blanket ban restricting immigration from everywhere was “far fetched” because the U.S. has Visa waiver programs with France, Germany and some other countries. “We can travel there without extreme vetting,” he said, and the same is true in reverse. But he voiced concerns over “radical Islamists” admitted to some of those countries without vetting. He said he would support a brief delay, maybe 10 days, in immigration from those countries to vet those seeking to come in and be sure they are not radical Islamists. “What’s wrong with putting American first for a change?” he asked. “That’s a change I can believe in.”
A man named Dante, a 41 year resident here, complained about Hunter’s support for healthcare access but not affordability. “I have access to a first class seat on an airplane, but I can’t afford it,” he pointed out.
Hunter replied, “We know we’re going to disrupt the market” with the healthcare repeal/replacement measure. “ I don’t believe in guaranteed access to healthcare.”
He said he backs giving some money to states for a couple of years to lessen the impact. He thinks once competition is allowed and insurance is decoupled form hospitals, those impacts will be less. But he made clear, “We’re not guaranteeing” that everyone will have healthcare. “I don’t believe in it.”
Not having health insurance can amount to a death sentence for people with serious conditions that are expensive to treat and cure, such as cancer. But Hunter seemed to have no solution for those who can’t afford insurance premiums. The GOP plan gets rid of all subsidies for low-income people. Their plan does have limited tax credits to buy healthcare up front and save on taxes later, but only $2,000 to $5,000 a year, far less than what policies are expected to cost, according to the American Medical Association.
The questioner fired back, “England and France have guaranteed healthcare for all and it costs less than ours.”
Hunter retorted, “If you want to wait two years for a vasectomy.” He said he does not support government-run healthcare adding that he wants to “get government out of our lives.” He added this includes the Second Amendment, and he opposes gun restrictions.
Hunter said he and his staff are on Obamacare in Washington D.C. (not California) and that his healthcare costs doubled. Some in the crowd chanted, “Fix it, don’t replace it!”
April Ortiz spoke next. “I am outraged to learn that Russia may have interfered with our election. Will you support an independent investigation?”
Hunter said there are four Congressional investigations, adding, “We ought to look into it,” but “I don’t think Russia interfered…Russians hack us all the time” including defense contractors who have been hacked. But he added he won’t support a “witch hunt” by “intelligence agencies infiltrated by seditious Obama folks,” drawing mixed boos and applause.
He claimed there is a “deep state” of thousands of Obama appointees still in the government “trying to take him [Trump] down from the inside.”
The crowd pushed for an independent prosecutor to investigate claims that Russian hacking sought to influence the election outcome in Trump’s favor. “Investigate. Prove it!” some demanded.
As for Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama had his calls at Trump Towers wire tapped before the election, a claim Obama and intelligence agencies have denied, Hunter said, “We haven’t called it wiretapping since we had cell phones…we call it intercepted.”
Another question came from Danielle, who asked, “Will you support the rights and safety of refugees and will you condemn an executive order ever?”
Hunter said he supports extreme vetting of people already here and if we made promises to those already here, they can stay. But he added, “I full heartedly support” Trump’s executive order, adding that Congress should pass a law “so it cannot be changed” by a future president without Congressional approval.
The crowd booed, prompting Hunter to ask, “Why can’t you be social?”
Asked if he would condemn attacks on Jewish community centers, Hunter said, “I condemn all threats” including “those threats against me.”
Pressed on whether he would condemn threats published by Breitbart news or those by Steve Bannon, former Breitbart publisher and now Trump advisor, Hunter said, “No, I don’t think Bannon is anti-Semitic.” [Fact check: Breitbart has claimed not to be anti-Semitic but under Bannon, did include many comments openly supporting white Supremacists and anti-Semitic views.)
At the conclusion of the rambunctious town hall session, Hunter told the crowd, “I enjoyed this. I know you’re yelling at me. What makes our country great is we’re able to talk or yell or chant.”
Hunter remained courteous to the crowd, despite trying circumstances. He concluded, “I’m here to represent you, whether or not you voted for me.”
That didn’t seem to satisfy the many Indivisble members in the crowd who got in the last words, chanting “Do your job.”
In the lobby afterwards, Chadwick passed out pill bottles to promote her campaign against Hunter. A label on one side reads, “Gloria Chadwick’s recipe to fix Congress includes restoring integrity, providing affordable healthcare, creating more jobs, and protecting Medicare and the rights of veterans!” The reverse side carries a warning label reading, “Caution: avoid prolonged exposure to Congressman Hunter’s greed, corruption and dishonorable conduct. He is hazardous to your health.”
Patrick Malloy, who ran against Hunter in 2016, was also at the event and has indicated plans to run again in 2018. After the town hall, he faulted Hunter for refusing to support an independent investigation into Russian influences on Trump and his cabinet. Malloy posted on the Escondido Grapevine, “Any zealous elected official bent on finding something, anything on Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but is reluctant to Investigate a Foreign Government’s potential election tampering, is not fit to be part of the Checks and Balances in our Great Nation.”