It was standing-room-only on Friday, May 19, as hundreds of people squeezed into the pews of Montview Blvd. Presbyterian Church to attend a town hall with U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. It was his third of the day, following town halls in Ft. Collins and Boulder.
Unlike some town halls, where questions and their askers are carefully screened, moderator Nate Easley drew names from a bin of attendees, and Sen. Bennet took the questions as they came. The audience – including many vocal Bernie Sanders supporters—was by and large a friendly one to the Democratic Senator, a Park Hill resident during his days as former Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff and as DPS Superintendent.
Bennet’s approach to his constituents was conversational and casual. Dressed down in a Patagonia jacket and khaki pants, he walked up the center aisle of the church towards the speakers, never once sitting on stool in front of the stage. His tone and demeanor were calm, congenial, and frank.
Wide Range of Issues Addressed
The questions from the audience were varied, with little repetition of issues over the course of the hour-plus long meeting. A retired nurse practitioner opened with a question on the minds of many these days: “I’m really scared about the [U.S. House bill to repeal and replace ACA], because it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she began. “I’d like to ask how you plan to preserve Medicaid, especially the expansion. It’s been a life and death matter for a lot of people that I see.”
As he did for most questions that night, Bennet offered a long and detailed response, the heart of which was this statement: “What I can tell you about this bill in the House of Representatives is, if you set out to design a piece of legislation less responsive to the needs of Coloradoans, you couldn’t do it.” This answer, like many that followed, was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the Denver audience.
Bennet acknowledged that there are flaws with the existing Affordable Care Act, particularly in rural areas of Colorado, where little competition in the insurance industry results in high premiums. But Bennet views the House bill as a means of shifting responsibility to the states, and, ultimately, the loss of health care for children and seniors in nursing homes. “We have to stop this bill in the U.S. Senate.”
The evening continued in a similar vein, with questions, for example, about his relationship with Cory Gardner (“good”), the state of the Democratic Party (needs a “fundamental identity rebuilding”), and the regulatory accountability act (“you can count on a no vote from me”).
It took more than 45 minutes for someone to ask about Russian connections to the Trump administration, and Bennet pulled no punches in his response. “We know now…that the Russians meddled mightily in this election. Mightily!” Bennet asserted. “Donald Trump still says maybe it was the Chinese. There is not an intelligence agency in America that believes that. The intelligence agencies in America believe it was the Russians.”
The toughest question of the night came from Debbie James, “When you voted against poor and lower middle class Americans being able to purchase reduced cost drugs from Canada, you hurt, harmed, and also possibly signed a death sentence for those who suffer from Big Pharma’s stranglehold over their healthcare and wellbeing,” said James, her voice breaking with emotion. “I wonder where is the empathy and compassion for the elderly and poor children and their parents who cannot afford essential medication? Will you vote for this when it comes up again?”
In response, Bennet defended his earlier vote by citing the lack of safety measures in the bill, which, if in place in a similar future bill, would allow him to vote for it. In the meantime, Bennet suggested, the next step is to “have Medicare negotiate drug prices, which I think would make a vast difference for the poor.”
Later, Bennet also defended his vote against the Democrats’ filibuster of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination. “Filibustering a qualified nominee to the Supreme Court played right into Mitch McConnell’s hands and allowed him to invoke the nuclear option and blow up the Senate,” he said. “You don’t like the ring of ‘Justice Gorsuch’? Well, how do you like the ring of ‘Justice Pruitt’… How do you like the ring of ‘Justice Sessions’? How do you like the ring of ‘Justice Betsy DeVos’?” asked Bennet. “He can appoint any of those people and get them approved with 51 votes.” Bennet fears that the nuclear option will mean that “we will have infected our Court” with the same damaging partisanship that has infected our country.
As the meeting wore on, Bennet grew more comfortable with his receptive audience and began to elaborate in his responses to questions, getting to material he wanted to express even when somewhat tangential to the original question being asked.
For example, he referred at least twice to his bipartisan work as part of the “Gang of Eight” – four Republican and four Democratic senators who crafted a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that included increased border security AND a pathway to citizenship. And near the end of the evening, in response to a question about affordable housing, Bennet made a point of mentioning “the significant problem we have to educate the next generation…if you’re born poor in the United States, you’re chances of graduating with a college degree or its equivalent are 9 in 100.” Bennet then detailed the successes of DPS in addressing educational inequities before returning to the issue of affordable housing. Earlier, in response to a question about NASA, he had said, “We’ve done a terrible job by making math and science as boring as we possibly can in school,” said Bennet. “When they apply it, it becomes exciting, and there’s nothing more exciting than space.”
The evening closed with Bennet reading a letter written by Barbara Rank, a Dubuque, Iowa resident who responded to a question from her Congressman, Rod Blum, “Why should a 62-year-old man have to pay for maternity care?” In Rank’s response, she asked, “Why should I pay for a bridge I don’t cross, a sidewalk I don’t walk on, a library book I don’t read?” Bennet closed with Bank’s answer to her own question, “It’s called democracy, a civil society, the greater good. That’s what we pay for.”
After the meeting wrapped up, slightly later than expected, Bennet posed for dozens of photos with attendees.