It was a meeting focused on bread and butter issues — jobs, taxes, and education — when Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Dist. 8, met with his Duluth constituents in a spirited town hall Wednesday.
Barely a day's notice was given for this town hall. It was first announced by Cravaack to a group of protestors who gathered outside a lunch meeting on Tuesday. Regardless, a crowd of more than 200 people filled a room to standing capacity at the Duluth airport to meet with Cravaack.
The freshman Republican has recently taken heat for not holding a public meeting in the district's largest city, a DFL stronghold. He also raised eyebrows when he announced his family's move to New Hampshire for his wife's job.
"Good afternoon. I appreciate everyone taking time out of your busy schedules to be here," Cravaack said to the crowd.
He then laid out some ground rules. He said this was his 13th town hall since he defeated incumbent Jim Oberstar in one of biggest upsets of 2010 election.
"Unfortunately, what I've seen is they've become more and more uncivil as time goes on," Cravaack said. "If we can remain civil, respect each other's opinions, so we can hear each other, so we can have a good dialogue."
And, largely, that's what happened. Cravaack opened the event just as he did in previous town halls, with a presentation on what he called the country's unsustainable budget path. In a theme that continued through the meeting, the retired Navy vet talked about why he took the plunge into politics — for his kids.
"I saw the massive amount of debt that was going to be bestowed on my two young children. And I said 'We cannot implode from within, I didn't defend the country for 24 years to allow us to do this to ourselves.' "
Opening up for questions, dozens of people scrambled to get in line behind a microphone.
Theresa O'Halleran Johnson, happy she graduated from college, said "I continue to stay up all night, many nights, wondering how my children will be able to go to college.
"Who will pay those taxes if they don't get an education? If they don't get good jobs? What are you doing to change that?"
The crowd applaused for her.
"We're on the same page, I agree," Cravaack said.
Through the meeting, Cravaack insisted that raising taxes only would not solve the federal budget's problems and would harm small businesses. The mantra he repeated the previous day was "Don't grow taxes, grow the tax base."
"One of the big things I want to do is bring jobs here," Cravaack said. "Polymet is something I've been supporting since day one."
Polymet is a controversial copper and nickel mine proposed on the Iron Range. Opponents fear the operation will bring the same environmental problems associated with similar mines. Polymet will bring at least 350 high paying jobs, and thousands more ancillary jobs, Cravaack said.
"I am convinced that we can do this project in the most environmental friendly possible in the world," he said.
Some in the crowd responded "Never been done. Never been done."
Cravaack continued to field questions for about 40 minutes, after which Kathy Hern of Duluth told reporters she was frustrated she didn't get to speak to the congressman. Hern said she's desperate to find a job, but any new mining jobs would be too far away.
"Polymet is not an answer for the people of Duluth," Hern said. "It will help the Iron Range. It will help support other jobs. But it's not the whole answer."
Others were more sympathetic. Charla Bayerl, also of Duluth, said people need to be patient.
"Chip has been in only 8 months, our problems have come over 50 years, 60 years, both sides of the aisle, and you can't be screaming at a person who's given up his life to come here," Bayerl said. "Do what you got to do for yourself, take care of yourself as best as you can, and as a group we'll all move forward."
Cravaack heads back to Washington after Labor Day, when he'll join a Congress that will have to address a multi-billion dollar budget deficit and job creation.
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