By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION– U.S. Rep. Peter Welch attributed the largest crowd he’s ever had at a town hall meeting to someone who wasn’t even there: President Donald Trump.
“This is bigger because of the times,” Welch said Friday evening, March 3. “There’s been an explosion of interest because of the concern over a lot of the actions that the Trump administration has been taking.”
The event drew about 300 people to the Briggs Opera House in downtown White River Junction.
Vermont’s sole Representative in Congress was encouraged by the turnout and a new level of constituent engagement in issues.
“Everybody here is really concerned about the state of our democracy,” said Welch, a Democrat. “The main thing is they’re engaged and they’re hopeful and that’s what is ultimately going to make a change.”
Welch spoke to the standing-room-only crowd jammed into the historic theater for about 90 minutes. The town hall was moved to the opera house from a smaller venue in anticipation of the large turnout.
Over the years, Welch has hosted similar events in settings as small as coffee shops attracting only a handful of people.
News reports of recent town hall meetings around the nation held by Welch’s colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives have shown similar record-sized crowds, and at some gatherings there have been large protests and harsh criticism directed at members of Congress.
The protests have intimidated some members of Congress who have shied away from hosting town hall meetings. Welch said he has no plans to cut back on meetings with constituents.
“I love hearing from Vermonters,” he said. ”If you’re not willing to get out and get amongst the people you represent you shouldn’t do the job.”
It was the first town hall meeting hosted by Welch since Trump’s inauguration. The Vermont congressman typically holds about a dozen such events annually, a tradition he said he expects to repeat this year.
The event Friday was a civil affair, with no voices raised or fingers pointed.
It was also home turf for Welch, who lives in nearby Norwich and represented the Vermont towns in the Democratic-leaning Upper Valley in the state Senate before his election to Congress.
Hali Issente of Bethel, who works at a nonprofit parent and child center, said after the event that he was a strong Welch supporter and wasn’t surprised by the event’s civility.
“This is kind of his area,” he said of the congressman. “I feel like a lot people who were here share his same sentiments and they share his same beliefs.”
Trump garnered only 29.8 percent of the vote in the general election, trailing Hillary Clinton’s 55.7 percent. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., collected 5.7 percent through write-in votes.
Many of the constituents who posed questions Friday night aligned themselves with Sanders. Not one identified as a supporter of the new Republican president. Several asked what they can do to help block his immigration and health care policies.
Welch said he would work with Trump in areas where there might be agreement, such as upgrades to the nation’s infrastructure. But Welch said he opposes much of Trump’s agenda and he will push for investigations into Trump’s campaign connections to Russia.
One person asked why impeachment proceedings hadn’t begun against the new president.
Welch said he didn’t think impeachment would advance very far in Congress. Even if an attempt to force Trump out was successful, it would lead to possibly more conservative policies coming out of the Oval Office, he said.
“There’s a vice president who would become president,” Welch said, in reference to Vice President Mike Pence, the former Republican governor of Indiana.
Carol Lane, a retired teacher living in Hartford, said she went to the town hall meeting to hear more about education issues. She is worried that the new education secretary would hurt public schools by pushing for vouchers and charter schools.
Several people asked questions about Trump’s pledge to roll back environmental regulations.
“He doesn’t even believe in climate change,” Welch said of the president. “Isn’t that bizarre?”
One person wanted to know how to keep the nation’s youth from becoming fed up with political process.
“Young people are pissed off,” the questioner said.
Welch replied that in many areas, it is the young people who are leading the way, particularly when it comes to issues involving the environment.
The congressman later encouraged the crowd to stay involved, especially on the local and state level, where many movements start and important decisions that impact people’s daily lives are made.
“It’s a dark time and the country is losing its way in D.C.,” Welch said, adding, “There’s nothing wrong with America. It’s what’s right with America that will get us to where we want to be.”