U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer’s town hall meeting in Quilcene on Feb. 1 touched on immigration and border security, health care for his constituents and the mental health of elected officials, the government shutdown, rural internet infrastructure and the upkeep of national parks.
The Democratic representative for Washington’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House spoke to a crowd of 60-plus attendees in the Quilcene School auditorium, and he expressed his support for a number of measures he believes will benefit the working-class residents of south Jefferson County.
“I’m a big believer that a pension is promise,” said Kilmer, who described himself as “focused” on pension security and flatly stated his support for the proposed “We the People” amendment, to end corporate personhood and the treatment of money as political speech.
Kilmer lamented the lack of broadband access in rural regions such as south county, recalling how he’d met with tribal leaders after they’d been told their students, like all others in the state, would need to take online tests to meet state educational standards.
Kilmer said part of the evaluation is how long it takes students to respond, but the tribes he’d talked to found it took them as long as a minute and 44 seconds to load some of the webpages.
“They don’t have high-speed internet, so they have to bus their kids to a town they’ve never been to in order to take these tests,” Kilmer said. “You have small businesses who are conducting transactions and paying bills online. How can we make this work better for our region?”
Kilmer touted the Broadband for All Act as a model for how to solve the “last mile problem” of connecting telecommunication services to retail end users.
“It’s a bipartisan bill that would broaden the definition of infrastructure,” Kilmer said. “Infrastructure is not just roads and bridges. This could be like the rural electrification of the last century.”
Moving to Social Security and Medicare funding, Kilmer said they’re programs he takes personally, since his grandmother is less than two months away from her 109th birthday.
“My grandfather died in 1981,” Kilmer said. “She’s been able to live 38 years with dignity, thanks to two of the most successful public policies in the history of the country.”
Kilmer supports shifting Social Security’s standards from the consumer price index to the CPI for the elderly, which reflects the larger costs the elderly have for certain services as they grow older.
“Social Security shouldn’t be called an ‘entitlement,’” Kilmer said. “It’s earned benefit. These people have paid into it. They have it coming to them.”
Kilmer also advocated broadening and expanding Medicare, rather than replacing it with a voucher system.
“Rather than having certainty, a voucher program would give you a coupon you could use to shop the insurance market yourself,” Kilmer said. “My business is economics, and even I consider the insurance market complex, so shopping there is not going to pass the ‘Derek’s grandma’ test.”
A man whose son is a border patrol agent asked about the likelihood of another government shutdown, asserting those personnel members could not carry on through another period without paychecks.
Kilmer expressed tentative optimism that Congressional Democrats and Republicans would reach an agreement on border security funding. But since he doesn’t foresee that agreement including provisions for the wall President Donald Trump has called for, Kilmer conceded to some uncertainty about whether the president would sign such a deal.
“No one should be proud to shut down the government,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer also took aim at the treatment of asylum seekers who come to the United States, noting the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans have pushed for more restrictions on their admission, including the denial of protection to applicants fleeing domestic or gang violence.
Kilmer recalled how, when he visited the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, he met 22 women whose children were taken from them.
“A 5-year-old was taken from their family,” Kilmer said. “They were told the child would be returned in two days. When I spoke to them, it had been four weeks.”
Kilmer deemed such treatment “not consistent with our values as Americans,” and he voiced his support for the bipartisan USA Act, a bill to increase the number of immigration judges and create a pathway to permanent legal status for “Dreamers,” undocumented alien minors.
Kilmer responded to a question about the proposed shooting facility near Tarboo Lake in Quilcene by noting the number of calls he’s received from other local residents on that subject.
Although Kilmer has spoken with the Jefferson County Commissioners, he demurred on getting involved, saying it wasn’t his proper place.
“It’s not for Congress to dictate local land use,” Kilmer said, identifying state and county agencies and regulations instead. “I’ve seen what happens when Congress tries to circumvent that.”
On health care, Kilmer said, “I’m for a public option,” but in the meantime, he promised to “fight like hell” for the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama, which he asserted has reduced both health care costs and the number of the uninsured.
He acknowledged a flaw in the ACA pertinent to Jefferson County is the act’s lack of reimbursement to nurse practitioners for primary care.
Kilmer said a number of rural residents, including his wife, prefer physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners for their primary care.
Also relevant to rural Jefferson County, Kilmer backs the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act, to address issues such as failing septic systems and washed-out roads and trails.
“National parks are America’s crown jewels, but that crown is getting rusty,” Kilmer said.
When asked how he prioritizes the many issues he’s presented as a member of Congress, Kilmer said his primary goal was to create “more economic opportunities, for more people in more places,” with the recognition that such opportunities “will look different here than they would in Tacoma.”
On a broader level, Kilmer spoke of his outreach efforts toward both Republican elected officials and his own constituents to try and “restore public faith and trust” in government, while also “dialing down the toxicity” of public discourse.
A question about conducting assessments of the mental health of elected officials led to laughter by the crowd, especially after Kilmer predicted the president probably wouldn’t sign it, but it also prompted Kilmer to expound on the value of mental health services.
“In most counties I represent, the largest provider of mental health services is the county jail,” Kilmer said. “When it comes to mental health care, this state is worse off than most. How can the federal government provide more assistance?”
A woman from Bremerton was one of the last to ask questions, and she read aloud from a letter written by her husband who expressed concerns with what they saw as “a far-left agenda,” and requesting Kilmer identify where he stands on a number of issues.
Kilmer reiterated his support for the ACA, while also declaring his belief in man-made climate change and calling for mitigation of student loan debt.
“I think it’a a good thing to reduce the influence of big money in politics,” Kilmer said. “I support the Paycheck Fairness Act, to ensure equal pay for equal work. But whether you’re a couple from Bremerton or a progressive from Quilcene, please keep the faith. What matters is what kind of country we want to build together.”