WARETOWN – The sounds of protesters could be faintly heard outside the firehouse here after the U2 Pride-powered entrance of U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3) died down, faded, and the congressman stood center-stage amid 250 people – what would prove, for the most part, to be a “wonderfully courteous group,” in the words of one woman in attendance.
“I am not Donald Trump,” MacArthur told the crowd, as he felt them out and vice versa. “I am not Paul Ryan. You may have guessed that I’m not Hillary Clinton, and I’m not Nancy Pelosi.
“I grew up on a dairy farm,” the congressman, first elected to represent CD3, added, in this first town hall that in some ways felt like an introduction.
Sometimes they call him “T-Mac,” he acknowledged.
The protest voices were barely audible for a moment.
“I wish we could have had them in here,” he said, and then another roar sounded.
Then the first questioner stood up and seemed to gently berate him for waffling on a town hall before finally deciding in favor, for yet having had more of them, and for suggesting that paid protesters might have packed the event.
There was no super-charged protest movement at hand initially, but many in the crowd – judging by the early questions and the clapped reactions – seemed anti-Trump and frightened and cautious about forming too fast an opinion about the congressman.
As the president considers massive cuts to the federal climate agency budget, MacArthur said he sees a balancing challenge between the economy and the environment. “The globe is warming and I don’t think we should ignore that,” he said to some scattered claps. “I don’t think politicians should pretend that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.
“I will not support ever a drilling off the Jersey Shore,” he added to more applause.
A woman, self-identifying as a teacher, stood up and asked the congressman to pledge not to support HR10, a pro-vouchers bill. “That particular bill I can’t tell you what I feel about all the provisions,” MacArthur said candidly. He hadn’t read it. But he did offer his opinion on vouchers. “Charter schools are an opportunity to do new things without the bureaucratic constraint and I support that,” he said.
“Vouchers are something else. My concern is that struggling schools will have the rug pulled out from under them. I don’t like the idea of broad vouchers because I think they ruin the system.”
A man rose and urged him to support a truly independent investigation into the Russia-Trump connection (wild applause) and the claim of wiretapping at Trump tower (applause tempered by a few harrumphs).
“Vladimir Putin is a thug,” MacArthur said. “we should be very wary in our dealings with Russia. It would appear to be pretty clear that Russia interfered with our presidential election.”
“There are today three investigations into that activity: one at the FBI, one at the House, and one at the Senate,” he added.
He said he doesn’t think an independent investigation is appropriate at present.
“I for one want to give them a chance to do their jobs,” MacArthur said of the House and Senate proves. “I don’t think the people in either party have any interest in protecting Russia.”
The crowd hovered as it chewed on the remark.
“No concealed carry!” a voice cried from outside. “No concealed carry! No concealed carry!”
The protester referred to the fact that New Jersey is one of only 10 states that won’t honor concealed carry permits issued outside its borders. According to this piece in NJ.com, “legislation in Congress would require states to recognize concealed carry permits issued elsewhere, the same way they now accept out-of-state drivers’ licenses.”
That was outside.
But inside now the cap on the bottle was coming off at last.
A man, Jeff, rose and upbraided the congressman.
“I’m a protester,” he said.
Then he told MacArthur that he lives in the district and was irritated by T-Mac’s characterization at the outset of protesters as “people who live outside the district.”
“I will not be marginalized,” the man told the ramrod, raptly listening representative.
Now the man brought down the house for the first time tonight – laughs and heckling intermingled with a big rousing applause line, suppressed shouts finally bubbling over – when he criticized MacArthur for not calling on the president to release his tax returns.
The self-identified protester said, “That angered me.”
“President Trump should release his taxes because he said he would. Period,” MacArthur said. “I know you feel congress should force him to or go to the IRS and get them. I’m not there yet. I want to see what the House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence Committee come up with.”
Then: Where’s the money coming from to build a wall and cut taxes?
“I don’t know, but you’re raising a critical point,” said the congressman.