[Editor's note: The Delta County Independent was unable to schedule a reporter to cover this meeting due to prior commitments. Rita Clagett submitted a 2,600-word report of the meeting organized by Grand Mesa Indivisible, We the People of the North Fork Valley and Indivisible Delta County, which has been edited due to space considerations. Clagett is not an employee of the DCI. Her full story can be found online at by clicking here.]
Nearly 200 constituents of Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Scott Tipton, both Republicans, packed the Paradise Theater in Paonia on Saturday, Feb. 25, for a citizen's town hall meeting scheduled during the Congressional recess. People came from Grand Junction, Montrose, Delta, Cedaredge and the Roaring Fork Valley as well as the North Fork Valley. Event organizers had invited both Tipton, whose staff had said he was in Germany and so could not attend, and Senator Gardner, whose staff said he did not like to attend town hall meetings, declined to attend in his stead. A film crew documented the meeting so all questions and comments could be sent to Gardner and Tipton.
Congressman Tipton's surprise arrival was greeted with warm applause. He stood on the stage for the next hour and a half as constituents addressed him and a vacant stool representing Senator Gardner. State Senator Kerry Donovan, Democrat for District 5, attended the town hall and was also greeted warmly. She addressed the audience briefly toward the end of the meeting.
Top issues voiced included health coverage for everyone with appeals to fix the Affordable Care Act, not repeal it; protecting the North Fork Valley from oil and gas development; and urgent concerns about First Amendment protections, and the Trump administration's apparent collusion with Russia. Others spoke to climate change as the crucial issue of our time, the basic right for quality public education for all children, essential environmental protections, and protection of civil rights for women and other minority groups.
Constituent comments began with Robin Smith of Paonia asking, "Where can I go to collect my $1,500?" alluding to Senator Gardner's recent claim that protesters were paid out-of-state professionals. His concern about the early signs of dictatorship emerging in the Trump administration was greeted with loud applause and was echoed several times throughout the afternoon by other speakers. He asked Tipton, "What are you going to do to stand up to this fascist dictator before he destroys our country?"
Congressman Tipton's reply listing several things he has done was judged inadequate by many in the audience who began to boo. Throughout the afternoon some of his replies were booed and a few were applauded, while frequent hecklers were often shushed by fellow audience members. He went on to say that "Executive fiat is not the way our country was intended to be run."
Cynthia Hines, a cancer survivor, speaking alternately to the audience and directly to Congressman Tipton, said she has a vested interest in health care, like millions of others who are self-insured. While she agrees that the Affordable Care Act needs to be repaired, she asked why, after seven years of talking and trying to repeal it, Republicans still don't have a plan? "This is nothing to play around with," she said, and went on to cite the Patient Protection section of the ACA, deeming it "absolutely crucial. You can leave it just like it is."
She told Tipton, "These are really big problems and have hugely important consequences. Please do not repeal the ACA, please just fix it." The audience rose from their seats in a long and rousing standing ovation, showing their vehement support for health care for everyone.
Tipton replied, "Here's where we have a lot in common," and cited his own brother's pre-existing condition. Then he proceeded to list the failures of ACA; his mention of Health Savings Accounts was met with boos and yells.
Mary Smith, a former schoolteacher, expressed her grave concerns about House Bill 610, to distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to . . . repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools. Smith asked Tipton, "Will you fight to preserve quality education for all children or will you give in to the interest of the privileged few?"
Tipton replied, "I do believe in school choice," citing great charter schools that he knows but not answering the question whether he will or will not support public education.
Mary Jursinovic, artist and sustainable homesteader, told the congressman that it is "critically important that our land be protected from oil and gas development...including fracking" that would "cause irreparable harm to us and our livelihood." Her statement was greeted with another standing ovation. She followed this by questioning Tipton's recent vote to rescind the BLM methane emission rules, and invited both Tipton and Gardner to visit her farm, encouraging them to act on behalf of "us" instead of the oil and gas industry.
Tipton stated that he supports many forms of energy development including alternative energy and oil shale drilling and that it has to be done right, but the audience did not appear satisfied with his response, erupting into boos.
Elena Goldstein, retired educator and climate activist, addressed Tipton directly with a list of questions about the environment and climate change. "Climate change," she stated, "is not just another issue, it is the critical issue of our time. Please recognize that introducing, speaking, and voting for any bill that will harm our planet will be the height of irresponsibility and immorality. The future is at stake!"
Tipton reiterated his earlier response that he believes it needs to be "all of the above," and joked that "I've always believed the climate is changing," but did not actually answer any of Goldstein's questions about climate change being caused by human activity.
Dr. Tamara Hardesty, like several who spoke before and after her, thanked Tipton for coming, and lauded the courage and spine he displayed standing before this crowd, then asked him to please take that courage and spine to Washington and stand up for "us." She spoke about rights to free speech and assembly, freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and security concerns because of the Trump administrations appearance of collusion with Vladimir Putin, demanding that our representatives take back our government for America. Tipton responded that he would look into the harassment her daughter received at the Canadian border because her name "sounded Arabic," and assured the audience that, "The Russians are not our friends."
Susan Cypher of Grand Junction said, "My main concern really is Russia: it's that simple and that complex." She demanded an independent investigation with a special prosecutor into Trump's ties to Russia. Tipton replied that committees are looking into this.
Jo Clugg from Montrose asked, "Why has the GOP not insisted that Trump release his tax returns?" to which Tipton responded that it is fine with him if Trump does so.
Brent Womack, a former biology teacher, spoke to the Trump administration's cancellation of regulations and safeguards, particularly environmental protections including the Stream Protection Act. He asked Tipton, "When you said you wanted to protect our water, which you've said all afternoon, why did you vote to rescind this act?"
Tipton replied that the Stream Protection Act was designed for only six particular Appalachian streams and then expanded, and that it wasn't relevant to western mines, and had been effectively acting as a hidden tax on families seeing their energy bills increase.
Retired Hospice nurse Marjorie True spoke about healthcare, saying many people received healthcare that didn't have it before the ACA. "If it's repealed and not replaced," she said, "we are at risk of closure of over 8 hospitals in rural Colorado, most significantly for us Delta County Memorial Hospital. Many rural hospitals closed in states that didn't accept expanded Medicaid, she said, and there was an increase of 44 percent in Medicaid recipients in Colorado after the expansion; all of these insured people stand to lose their healthcare if ACA is repealed and not replaced. She also pointed out that health care is one of the top jobs providers not only in the country but in Delta County. Tipton agreed that these are real challenges.
At around 3:40 p.m., Congressman Tipton took his leave of the town hall meeting, and was again thanked and applauded for making his surprise appearance.
State Senator Kerry Donovan stood and offered advice on how to get your comments heard by your representatives. She assured people that their voices are being heard, and urged them to keep calling, sending personal emails, and sending letters and postcards. She discouraged the click and send emails and petitions online, saying they are often lumped as one comment. "It's much more impactful to write your own three-sentence reply, just a quick agree or disagree, I'm from here, and here's why. If you have a personal story to share, share it, it's powerful for us to have a story to tell on the mic or at a committee meeting. A couple of thoughtful emails on one topic can change the course of an office."
Following Tipton's departure about half the audience also left, but several people continued to voice their concerns for the live Facebook stream of the event, and for the video that will be sent to both elected representatives.