Overflow crowd brings tough questions, civil debate to Emmer town hall meeting

U.S. Rep Tom Emmer held a town hall style meeting Wednesday.
U.S. Rep Tom Emmer held a town hall meeting Wednesday at Sartell City Hall to field questions from his constituents.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Updated: 11:32 p.m. | Posted: 5:45 p.m.

Hundreds of people waited in the cold for hours Wednesday night hoping to get into a town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer in Sartell, near St. Cloud.

The 6th District Republican faced some tough questions from the lively and sometimes antagonistic crowd during the one-hour meeting on issues ranging from immigration to health care to climate change.

A long line had formed outside the Sartell City Hall by late afternoon as people gathered hoping to claim one of the limited seats inside. Many carried signs or flags and some debated civilly as they waited.

Vicki Morgan and Pat Atwood brought chairs to use while they waited.
Vicki Morgan (left) of Annandale and her friend Pat Atwood of St. Cloud brought chairs to use while they waited more than two hours to get inside Sartell City Hall.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Once inside, audience members questioned Emmer about his position on the Affordable Care Act and whether Republicans in Congress will have a plan for how to replace it before they repeal it.

Emmer said the ACA is "in a death spiral," which drew a mostly negative response from the audience. He said before the act was passed, Minnesota was a leader in providing insurance for high-risk people who couldn't get coverage elsewhere.

"The goal is going to be to return that decision-making authority back to the states so they can design those programs that work best for our citizens," Emmer said.

Some of the more heated moments of the meeting came when audience members asked Emmer about his position on immigration.

Haji Yusuf of St. Cloud asks U.S. Rep Tom Emmer a question.
Haji Yussuf of St. Cloud asks U.S. Rep. Emmer a question Wednesday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Haji Yussuf said it's time to stop the message coming out of Washington, D.C. that Muslims pose a threat.

"That's why I'm here," Yussuf said. "Can you pass a message to President Donald Trump so that he can stop this hateful narrative that Muslims are a danger to this country? We are in no way a danger to the country. We love this country."

Emmer said he has been working with Yussuf, co-founder of the advocacy group #UniteCloud, and said they share a "common interest".

"Everyone in this country deserves to be safe. Everyone in this country deserves to be able to live to their full potential and practice their faith," Emmer said.

Pat Atwood, left, of St. Cloud let her opinion of a comment be known.
Pat Atwood, left, of St. Cloud let her opinion of a comment be known.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Gladys Gutierrez, a student at the College of St. Benedict, asked Emmer if he will propose immigration reform.

"I have kids telling me that they are afraid," Gutierrez said, "They cry, 'I don't know if my mom is going to be taken away. I don't know if I'm going to come home and not see my mom and my dad.' So quite frankly, these people are already here. What are you going to do about it?"

Emmer said the Trump administration and Congress are committed to reviewing immigration laws and figuring out how they've been applied and whether they make sense.

"Let's make sure we have a system that works for everybody," Emmer said.

A few audience members asked about Emmer's willingness to cut regulatory burdens for businesses and improve workforce training.

Stephen Thompson of Lino Lakes speaks during the town hall.
Stephen Thompson of Lino Lakes speaks during the town hall.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Teresa Bohnen, president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, asked Emmer if he supports Trump's proposal to repeal two existing regulations for every new one.

Emmer said that while he supports reducing regulations, he thinks the idea is "lazy governance" and a refusal by government officials to set priorities.

"Not all regulation is bad," he said. "But we should absolutely be evaluating what is the benefit to be gained by the cost that's going to be incurred. And if the benefit doesn't outweigh the cost, then that's not something you should be doing."

Emmer also was asked whether he supports an independent investigation into possible Russian interference in the U.S. election. He said he would support whatever the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee decides.

Many in the crowd agree with request to investigate Trump's ties to Russia.
The crowd shows their support for a participant who asked about investigating Trump's administrations potential ties to Russia.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

The Sartell City Hall council chamber only seats about 75 people, so many of those attending weren't able to get inside and had to sit in an overflow area instead. Chants from those outside occasionally could be heard inside the town hall.

Ron Wilkes of Elk River said he was disappointed that Emmer cut off the town meeting after an hour. He had hoped to ask the congressman about President Trump's tax returns.

"A lot of people still had their hands up, that wanted their questions answered," Wilkes said. "And unfortunately, he didn't get to them."

Emmer's staff issued a statement earlier this week saying that the meeting would end early if the crowd grew disruptive, which has happened at town halls held by members of Congress in other states.

Some of those who waited outside for a chance to attend the town hall said they heard there was going to be a demonstration and wanted to show their support for Emmer and Trump.

"I'm standing up for my president, my country, and I would hope people would stop this organizing things against our president and our country," said Margie Fischer, 82. "I think they're mostly a bunch of rabblerousers. "This is nice and peaceful, yes. But too many of them aren't. And I don't think that they should be doing this in our little peaceful quiet town."

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