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Comer dodges questions at town hall by teleconference

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Jennifer Smith and Leslie McColgin hold up signs during the Paducah town hall for James Comer

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Leslie McColgin and Jennifer Smith knew First District Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, was for Trumpcare.

After all, on Monday, the Tea Party Express-endorsed, anti-union Comer got to ride with Trump on Air Force One to the president’s Louisville speech and rally.

McColgin and Smith went to Comer’s Friday morning Paducah town hall anyway. He stayed in Washington, expecting to vote for the American Health Care Act, the GOP replacement for the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature domestic policy achievement.

“While I am ecstatic that they pulled the bill, I believe we will need to remain diligent,” said Smith, from Paducah. “I can't believe they will not try again, although maybe it is time for the Democrats to propose another single payer bill.”

Facing almost certain defeat, Trump withdrew the AHCA Friday afternoon. As many as 34 Republicans were ready to vote against the bill, according to MSNBC—uneasy conservatives worried about voter backlash in 2018 and hard-right Freedom Caucus members.

Trumpcare would have gutted the Affordable Care Act. The House Freedom Caucus wanted “Obamacare” vaporized.

A crowd estimated at 75 people showed up for the Paducah gathering where Comer had planned to field questions in person, but after the vote on Trumpcare.

Comer’s office announced the congressman’s town hall schedule on March 13. Four days later, CNN reported that the House would vote on the American Health Care Act on March 23, the seventh anniversary of President Obama's signing of the ACA.

Democrats in Comer’s district wonder why he didn’t reschedule the town hall ahead of the vote to get constituent input.  Even if the venue—the Commerce Center Community Room—were booked, surely his staffers could have found some equally suitable meeting hall, they argued.

Anyway, his local staffers turned the gathering into a teleconference after House Speaker Paul Ryan, desperate for time to wrangle more support, postponed the vote until Friday afternoon.   

"I will grant Comer some credit in attempting the town hall, but I think it may have been better if he had postponed until he could attend in person,” Smith said.

Smith said Comer, a freshman lawmaker, sometimes seemed unprepared for some questions. Other times his answers were less than straightforward, she added. 

“Although he stated repeatedly that he was open to dialogue, was for his constituents, and was not tied to his party's philosophies, he really didn't answer my question or anyone else's, other than perhaps [Karla Johnston’s] regarding investigating the Russian connection and [House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin] Nunes.”

She added, “With most of the others, he talked around the question, using GOP talking points to defend his positions. He stated he will have several more town halls, but as he did appear flustered at the negative questions, I can't help but wonder if [Senate Majority leader Mitch] McConnell will try to dissuade him.”

Protesters greeted McConnell on his recent trips to Lawrenceburg and Jeffersontown, a suburb of Louisville, the senator’s hometown.

Smith was shocked at Comer’s “ignorance about the impact of the proposed budget on the [National Institutes of Health] … and other science departments. I tweeted him a link, along with some other opinions as the meeting went on.”        

McColgin, a member of the Graves County Democratic Executive Committee who lives near Lowes, said somebody “asked a good question about cuts in funding to scientific research.  He totally flubbed that one, saying, ‘is that something that is happening?’ Then, realizing it must be in the Trump budget proposal, he said he did not know, but he supports scientific research and would look into that further.”

McColgin said Comer tried to appear reasonable, approachable and willing to listen to Republicans and Democrats.

“Of course, his response a lot of time was something to the effect like, ‘Oh of course I want cancer patients to have affordable healthcare and this bill will do that,’ or ‘No individuals with disabilities will lose any services if we do these cuts to Medicaid.’"

McColgin said the congressman “did not seem to be accurately informed about the incredibly important change to Medicaid funding to block grants and per capita allotments, as he insisted it would not affect services for those with disabilities or not on the expansion.”

Smith, McColgin and Johnston belong to Four Rivers Indivisible, a western Kentucky and southern Illinois branch of Indivisible, a national organization that “energizes and informs Americans about government’s potential and enlists them to imagine and create the government we need for all to have a safe, healthy, just and prosperous future.”

McColgin said that based on the line of questioning, most people in the crowd seemed to oppose Trumpcare. “A lot of people politely applauded when we asked our questions. Only toward the end were there some softball questions.”

She suspected the latter questioners were Republicans.

Besides Smith, McColgin and Johnston, who is from Murray, a trio of other Four Rivers Indivisible members attended the teleconference: Paducah resident Lea Wentworth and Graves countians Billy and Charlotte Goddard, who live near Hickory.

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-- Berry Craig of Mayfield, where he was born and reared, is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah. He is a member of the Graves County Democratic Executive Committee, the Kentucky State AFL-CIO Executive Committee and the author of a half dozen books on Bluegrass State history including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo.