By Rhett Wilkinson

Utah’s congressional district 4 may have seen the lowest voter turnout for any U.S. House of Representatives race, but that doesn’t mean its congresswoman, Mia Love, doesn’t have a whole bunch of questions from constituents to deal with.

And moderators, panelists and attendees alike are optimistic that Love will entertain them.

They hold out such hope even though Love herself refused to work with volunteer organizers on putting together a town hall where the questions were asked, according to an organizer who said she is running for Love’s seat, open in 2018.

Clare Coonan stands next to a cardboard cutout of Mia Love at a town hall organized by Utah Indivisible. Constituents asked questions that panelists answered and that Coonan said would be delivered to Love. (KUTV)

Utah’s Town Hall for All on Feb. 24 saw resistance groups to President Donald Trump, including Utah Indivisible, organize an event that commented on a lack of town halls by the state’s federal delegation. Cardboard cutouts of the six senators and representatives were there, standing in, as it were, for the actual elected officials. (The Utah Republican Party had previously discouraged the delegation, all six of whom are GOP, from holding town halls.)

In similar fashion, Utah Indivisible continued that approach — as part of its plans, organizers said, to hold similar meetings monthly — March 11 at West Jordan Middle School in West Jordan. Also featuring the Pledge of Allegiance, the event saw a cardboard cutout of Love on the school’s auditorium stage, where seven panelists in various specialties took questions from Love’s constituents on health care, the environment, immigration and other issues.

The imitation of Love was featured after Utah Indivisible organized the town hall. That happened after Love refused to allow volunteer organization members to organize the town hall with Love Director Laurel Price, Utah Indivisible volunteer Marla Mott-Smith said. Mott-Smith met twice with Price and other Love staffers, Mott-Smith said. The second time, members “said (they) had a town hall organized and offered to work with Laurel to sage it,” Mott-Smith said.

“Mia refused, so we proceeded without her,” added Mott-Smith, who said during the town hall that she is running for Love’s seat, open next year. Mott-Smith later told the author she is running as a Democrat and completing paperwork now.

Approximately 27 questions were posed in not even 90 minutes and saw responses from the panelists. Organizers from Utah Indivisible, Utah residents, said the inquiries would be given to Love.

Love true to her name?

Moderators and panelists spoke from their recent personal experiences of meeting with Love and her staffers as to why they thought that she would listen.

One was Katie Matheson, an event organizer. She said that Love’s district has recently been a swing district and that 41,600 constituents may lose their health coverage if the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, goes away. (Love won two close races against Democratic candidate Doug Owens. Former Rep. Jim Matheson edged out Love before that.)

Utah Indivisible’s Katie Matheson organized a town hall featuring a cardboard cutout of Rep. Mia Love. Matheson is optimistic that Love will listen to constituents’ concerns, many which were expressed at the town hall. (Katie Matheson)

“Representative Love is amenable to hear us,” Matheson said. “It can feel like there are so many calls to make — even 20 calls — but just focus on your representatives.” She added: “there is growing research that people who feel listened to will be softened in changing their perspective.”

“Out of all of the (federal delegation) offices, I felt Love’s listened the most and walked the middle of the road a little more,” Duhaime said. “It probably has its ears the widest open. So if you have recommendations, call her.

“They will listen to you,” Matheson added.

Jason Stevenson is the education and communications director for the Utah Health Policy Project, a “non-partisan, non-profit organization advancing sustainable healthcare solutions for underserved Utahns through better access, education, and public policy,” according to its website.

“I can say something very factual: in an hour-and-a-half meeting on health care,” the name of the president didn’t come up once. I think that is how they would like to have it,” Stevenson said of his visit with Love’s staff. “Trump has a limited influence on policy matters for now. Dealing with (Love) directly is something she wants to talk about. I think the policy side is where you can engage, but you won’t get far in discussing the presidency.”

David Robles, Latino community organizer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said he and an advocate’s meeting with Love’s two legal correspondents eventually saw her, after he “dragged out the conversation strategically.” Love hadn’t heard from constituents, which include Robles, from a perspective favoring former President Barack Obama’s designation of Utah’s Bears Ears as a national monument. She said she wanted to give a recommendation to her “good friend,” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, to meet with tribal leaders, Preserving Native American heritage is important to Robles, Robles said.

“So I would say that it was a success,” said Robles before remarking that it was key to not make the meeting a “hostile situation.”

“(Love’s office) has an excuse not to listen, so as residents, we need to re-think our aggression,” Robles said. “Before I went into her office, I had to take a deep breath as I do with these issues… and walk in there strategically.”

Healthcare

Stevenson told the crowd that they shouldn’t be “deceived” by descriptions of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which would replace Obamacare as the United States’ federal health care law, as “Obamacare Lite.” One major reason: the AHCA would get rid of Medicaid, Stevenson said. The AHCA is being promoted among federal elected officials by congressional Republicans.

“There is no Medicaid under CHIP,” said Stevenson of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. “And there is a $14,000 tax credit under the ACA but only an $8,000 (tax break) under the AHCA.

“(House Speaker) Paul Ryan’s passion is to get rid of Medicaid,” Stevenson remarked. “(The AHCA) would slice 20 percent from it and send it to the states and they won’t cover (the health insurance gap). And a big chunk of (Medicaid coverage) is pregnant women.”

UHPP projects that to 15 million Americans and 100,000 Utahns are projected to lose coverage if Obamacare is replaced, said Stevenson, who, as a freelance writer, needed to buy insurance, which Obamacare provided.

The organization was surprised that the AHCA protects pre-existing conditions, Stevenson added.

“I had to throw out about 20 slides because we thought it would be on the chopping block,” he said before noting: “if this bill passes, there will be a step two or step three and Paul Ryan touted high-risk pools, but you only need those if you are losing health care and have pre-existing conditions.”

Obamacare allows for general coverage but the AHCA is a 63-day “time bomb” that will phase people out of coverage, Stevenson said.

“The insurance companies are happy,” he added, “but many will lose their coverage.”

The AHCA is moving through Congress quickly and UHPP expects that it will bypass committee after the House votes on it in imminent days so that Trump could sign it by the first week of April, Stevenson said.

“(Congressional Republicans) know the more people learn what’s in the bill, the less they will like it,” Stevenson remarked. “That’s why they are fast-tracking it.”

Duhaime said that Obamacare has put “rights and protections in place” for insurance consumers before stating that “the one thing” not being talked about with Obamacare is “what will happen to the employer.” She spoke about an 80–20 rule regarding premiums on health care and mental health parity which says that an insurance company must treat any behavioral health care as medical care. But insurance companies do not honor that provision, as the majority of her company’s clients are folks who struggle with mental health because insurance companies deny them.

Whitney Duhaime is the vice president of Denials Management, an insurance benefits advocacy firm. She said at a Utah Indivisible town hall that insurance companies wrongfully deny those with mental illness, among other points. (Whitney Duhaime)

“This is very concerning,” Duhaime said. “We want to make sure that people have the awareness and get insurance from the employers. We are not totally safe within the employer market and I find that to be unacceptable. Your benefits are not safe; (congressional Republicans) are coming after your insurance, too.”

Stevenson later said that the top three ZIP codes with the most folks who got health coverage through Obamacare is in Love’s district.

“It’s good to remind her because I don’t think (Love’s memory works as well on those kinds of issues,” he said. “And (Obamacare) is covering a lot of kids and premiums would go up for kids (if Obamacare was replaced). It’s a good pressure point for her own constituency and personal interests.”

Love has three children.

Another constituent said that until five years ago, she was a stay-at-home mom with two children and six miscarriages. She also found a lump on her chest. Helping her through it all, she said, was Planned Parenthood.

“The only (entity) that helped me,” she said, “was Planned Parenthood.”

Another constituent asked later about the AHCA lacking any “market-based principles like transparent pricing.”

“Why did the GOP not address the basic idea of transparency?” he asked. “Since it’s people making decisions, it’s a transaction.”

Stevenson said that point came up in UHPP’s meeting with Love the prior week.

“They didn’t know because hospital pricing is not transparent,” he said. Stevenson then offered that Healthcare.gov, which got needed fixes, provided transparency and that former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who administered Obamacare, put out “a ton of data.” He added an endorsement of articles written by The New York Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal. Stevenson then said that UHPP was doing “second and third generation” work in health policy in the state before then needing to revert in trying to help 100,000 Utahns keep their health insurance due to the possibility of Obamacare getting replaced.

Environment

“(Love) is not in favor of the EPA in really any shape or form,” said Tom Moyer of a Utah chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, in response to constituent Ellen Brady’s question about the federal agency. “So I can’t give you good news.”

But Moyer proceeded to express hope in Love and the environment.

Love became the seventh Republican in November to join the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, a major step considering that two years ago, zero congressional Republicans admitted to “climate science.” Love recently wrote an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune (leading with “let’s be good environmental stewards”) and talked about environmental issues on the floor of the state legislature, Moyer pointed out.

How did she want to address the problems?

“I’m not sure since she doesn’t want to do it through the EPA,” said Moyer, adding that the CCL seeks tax breaks to incentivize cleaner emissions and wants a climate proposal from Republicans. He personally believes that “every piece of environmental protection is under threat at the federal level.”

When a Mr. St. John, a constituent, then said he will leave the state is Utah’s drought situation gets worse, Moyer said that she thinks “something is coming” on climate issues from Love and Republicans.

“I know she is working behind the scenes, talking to other members of Congress to join the Climate Solutions Caucus,” Moyer said. “Like all politicians, she’s taking this one very cautious step at a time and checking for political reaction every step of the way.”

Moyer then advocated for constituents to write Love a thank you note thanking Love for joining the caucus.

Immigration

Greg Stark owns the firm Stark Immigration Law. After organizer Clare Coonan said that refugees were interested in attending the town hall but didn’t out of fear that police or U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration Customs Enforcement would be waiting outside the school, Stark confirmed: “there is a lot of fear right now.”

“Clients ask if they can do a power of attorney… when they take my kids from me, and I say ‘they can’t take your kids,’” Stark said. “(Clients) say they are afraid to go down the road and have West Valley police report them to ICE, because that is what the police are supposed to do now.”

Utah Indivisible’s Clare Coonan said that refugees didn’t attend the town out of fear of being apprehended by law enforcement, per a recent directive by the Trump administration. (Clare Coonan)

The Trump administration directed an enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively in late February, since resulting in the arresting and deporting of vast numbers of undocumented immigrants. The Obama administration had determined to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants who had felonies and not those with crimes like traffic tickets.

Stark responded to multiple questions about the issue by saying that related stories need to be reported to media. He also pointed out that Love was an “anchor baby.”

“Bring it up,” he said. “She was the daughter of immigrants… I’m the child of Irish immigrants who came to Utah.”

Constituent Linda Keyes said she saw in the news folks who were pulled off a plane or pulled out of an airport line aggressively confronted at a Los Angeles airport. She wondered if the behavior of law enforcement in the cases was constitutional.

“It is constitutional if (people) are coming from another country,” Stark said. “And aggressiveness has been allowed forever, even under the Obama administration and others. I wish questioners were more civil, but… they have even been encouraged to (be aggressive). … aggression is not a constitutional issue, as far as I know.”

A constituent who identified as Bear said that if folks have been in the U.S. for 40 years and “obviously are not bad hombres… let’s make them legal.”

Other issues

A constituent said that Trump’s assumed corrupt ties with Russia is so that he can gain a favorable interest rate. She expressed hope that the presumed foreign entanglement and violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause — a lawsuit was filed on the basis that the clause prohibits Trump-owned businesses from accepting payments from foreign governments — would prove to do Trump in as president since dislike of corruption would cut across party lines.

When constituent Wayne Springer said that campaign finance must be addressed, Moyer responded: “I agree with you completely… the power of constituents talking to legislators is overrated.”

Another constituent wondered if the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, created under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, is “under attack.”

“And if so, are we just screwed?” he wondered.

“Yes — it is under attack,” said Christian vom Lehn, a BYU economics professor. “These are important things to speak out about and there is not a strong position in the (Trump) administration that we should preserve this piece of Dodd-Frank.”

Margaret is a 70-year-old constituent who immigrated to Utah from the Netherlands — and recently started cussing, she said. She pointed to being born during World War II, when fascist rule permeated throughout her continent of Europe.

“What happened there is happening here,” she said. “Journalists aren’t allowed to be published and criticism of ‘fake news.’ The fear of now knowing (if) you were going to be picked up (by immigration officials). … Why is there not an uproar?” she asked before cheers.

Margaret continued: “I’m calling my legislators while I’m driving; calling them while I’m cutting potatoes. As I talk, my onion pieces get smaller. I’m asking if they have moral courage to stand up on your desks in Congress and say, ‘this is not right!’ This number 45 is who we want. Is there anyone here who wants (president number) 45?”

In reply, someone yelled, “impeach him!”

“We are having a fascist dictator in the White House and Congress is the ones that is supposed to be countering that,” said Bear, who also condemned Trump for his blocking press availability. “Jason Chaffetz should have been the first person at the door. That is not cool.”

Chaffetz, Utah’s Congressional District 3 representative, is the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chair.

One audience member asked attendees to subscribe specifically to The Salt Lake Tribune so it could hire another investigative reporter.

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