MacArthur Town Hall Goes Off Smoothly in WaretownCongressman Plays the Middle Most in Two-Hour Meeting
Congressman Tom MacArthur held his first town hall meeting of 2017 on Monday evening at the Waretown Volunteer Fire Co. Station 36. It was packed, standing room only with some people left outside in the literal cold due to – appropriately enough for a firehouse –fire code limits.
It was long, with the congressman taking questions from the audience of some 250 people for two hours.
It was well covered by the news media, with a large contingent of representatives from both print and broadcast outlets in attendance.
It was representative, with constituents from all over his sprawling 3rd New Jersey Congressional District, which covers 36 municipalities in Burlington County and 17 in Ocean County including the western part of Stafford Township and all of Barnegat Township, in attendance and asking questions.
What it wasn’t was overly contentious. Sure, most of the questions came from people worried about the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, the future of public education, the potential gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency and, especially, President Donald Trump’s behavior. But the questioners were, in the main, polite and the audience was, for the most part, respectful, with only a couple of episodes of rather hushed booing breaking out on both sides of the political divide. There were no chants, no signs inside the building – although that was because they weren’t allowed inside the building – and no buses filled with the outside paid professional protesters some Republican politicians, including MacArthur, had accused of hijacking their town halls. Indeed, minus the signs, until they asked their questions it was difficult to tell Republicans from Democrats in the mostly middle-aged – not too many 20-somethings, not too many 80-somethings – and what seemed to be, under a blinding spotlight, an entirely white crowd.
In fact, at the end of the meeting MacArthur got a polite, if not wildly enthusiastic, round of applause from just about everybody in the building.
MacArthur was almost as smooth in answering the sometimes tough questions as Fred Astaire used to be on the dance floor. He tended to play things down the middle, which was probably to be expected in a man usually pegged as a moderate Republican. Indeed, he had solidified his moderate credentials at a January GOP congressional retreat in Philadelphia when he was caught on tape during a healthcare discussion telling his fellow Republican lawmakers that “we’re telling those people that we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them, and if we do this too fast, we are in fact going to pull the rug out from under them.”
“I’m not Donald Trump,” he said to applause in his opening remarks at the town hall. “I’m not Paul Ryan, you might have guessed I’m not Hillary Clinton, and I’m not Nancy Pelosi.”
MacArthur took a personal approach in introducing himself to the crowd. He introduced Debbie, his wife of 35 years – they were married right out of college – and said, “We’re about to become grandparents for the first time.” The congressman then talked about his childhood in “a farming community” and how he “worked on dairy farms.” He said his mother died when he was 4. He also said that his and Debbie’s first child, Grace, died at the age of 11.
“When we talk about healthcare tonight, I want you to know where I’m coming from.”
MacArthur talked about his first real job, as an insurance claim investigator in the housing projects of New York City, a world away from the farming town of his youth. He stayed in the insurance field for 30 years, building a company with about 100 employees to one with about 6,000 workers.
“I tried to take that business approach in Washington.”
In other words, he had laid out a fairly typical and popular political story of a country boy who had made good, was a family man and who could take lessons he had learned in business to Capitol Hill. But he still couldn’t shake a wee bit of wariness his town hall meeting would be disrupted.
When he finished his opening remarks MacArthur set the evening’s ground rules. Raise your hand if you want to ask a question. Wait for a guy to show up with a microphone when recognized. Be respectful of your neighbors.
“I’m gonna ask that we not shout down each other.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said as he opened the floor to questioning. But then he added he wanted questioners to say where they were from because “I understand there are some people who are not from the 3rd Congressional District here tonight.”
His first questioner, a woman who said she was a longtime Barnegat resident, quickly told him, “In Ocean County we don’t have paid protesters. I think no one here is going to hijack you.”
She then set the tone for the night.
“Everybody is scared; we are really frightened of what’s going on.”
She said her main fears were the elimination of the EPA and the Department of Education and the de-funding of Planned Parenthood.
MacArthur answered the woman with the first quote Democrats might post on their refrigerator door in case he strays in the future. If there were bills introduced, he said, to “eliminate EPA, the Department of Education, I’m not going to support those things.”
But remember his middle-of-the-road approach.
“That’s not to say they don’t need some work. That’s not to say they don’t overreach sometimes. But I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The second questioner wanted to know if MacArthur would support carbon taxes to help deal with climate change. The congressman isn’t a climate change-denier.
“I don’t think politicians should say scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.”
But the white line in the middle of the road called and he added, “In the last 10 years no nation on Earth has reduced greenhouse gases as much as us,” and said we have to be careful not to restrain our economy while other countries get a competitive balance by continuing to pollute.
A Toms River teacher asked if MacArthur would vote no on HR 610, a bill introduced by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa that would have the U.S. Department of Education authorize block grants to qualified states to pay for voucher programs and would also repeal the rule that established nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs.
“I’m asking you to vote no on the bill – for our kids in our schools in New Jersey,” said the teacher. “They deserve a public education.”
“There are thousands and thousands of bills,” said MacArthur. “I haven’t read that one. I don’t look at bills until they come out of committee.”
He then went on to say two of his grandparents had been educators, that his mother had been a librarian, that no TV was allowed in his childhood home from Monday to Friday so he became a big reader, that “I have deep respect for teachers,” that “My daughter Grace, who I mentioned earlier, was a great beneficiary of special education” and that he had visited two schools in his district earlier in the day.
MacArthur said he likes charter schools and would like to see more of them, even in public school systems. “Vouchers are different,” he said. “My concern with vouchers is that struggling schools might have the rug pulled out from under them. I am open to ideas of how we can help children in failing schools, but we must be very wary of widespread vouchers.”
Another woman introduced herself by saying her sister had been murdered 31 years ago.
“I respect and support the Second Amendment,” she said, “but I don’t want dangerous people carrying guns in my community.”
The woman then complained about a bill that would allow people to buy silencers without a background check.
“I chose not to cosponsor the bill you are talking about,” said the congressman. But he once again drove to the middle, saying he had cosponsored a bill that would allow reciprocation between states in regard to weapons permits, a statement that brought boos from gun control advocates in the crowd. MacArthur went back to that bill later in the meeting, talking about a Pennsylvania woman who spent 40 days in jail and was facing years in prison from driving over the New Jersey border with a weapon that was legally permitted in Pennsylvania.
The middle! MacArthur even said, “I don’t introduce bills without a Democratic cosponsor.”
He even employed his please-all-the-people-all-of-the-time approach to questions about President Trump.
One man said he wanted Congress to force Trump to release his tax returns. MacArthur said, “President Trump should release his taxes because he said he would multiple times, period!” That earned applause from much of the audience. But then the congressman said, “I’m not there yet” in regard to forcing Trump to comply.
Can MacArthur calm the anger on the left with such moderate talk? Can he avoid a primary challenger from the right while sounding responsible and being willing to work across the aisle? He, and we, will have to wait until the 2018 election to find out.
But one thing was seemingly proven on March 6. MacArthur doesn’t have to be scared of holding a town hall meeting – unless, of course, those buses the Republicans love to talk about broke down on the Garden State Parkway.