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In rare Spokane town hall, Sen. Maria Cantwell faces friendly audience critical of GOP, Trump

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 15, 2017, 10:54 p.m.

Sen. Maria Cantwell fields questions Tuesday during a town hall meeting at Gonzaga University in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Maria Cantwell fields questions Tuesday during a town hall meeting at Gonzaga University in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A more cordial town hall crowd greeted Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell on Tuesday night than that faced by one of her Republican colleagues on the same stage last week.

To an audience that included many of the same faces who showed up Thursday at Gonzaga University to hear from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington’s junior senator earned applause for fighting the GOP health care bill and opposing several of the policies of President Donald Trump. Cantwell kept her criticism mostly to Trump’s policies, but offered a rebuke of his statements earlier Tuesday about the violence in Charlottesville, calling them “heartbreaking” and “unacceptable.”

“He should have said, ‘What day do you want me to come to Charlottesville and walk hand-in-hand and show that we’re against this kind of behavior?’ ” Cantwell said. “That’s what he should have said.”

The 400-seat room was about half-filled for the event, a lower turnout than for McMorris Rodgers’ appearance in the same room last week.

In contrast to McMorris Rodgers, who faced vocal opposition throughout the night making statements in support of the health care bill, Cantwell criticized it as a tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of expanded Medicaid coverage.

“I’m a little suspicious, with why my colleagues in the House wanted this proposal for health care,” she said. “They literally wanted to cut $800 billion out of Medicaid, cutting people off Medicaid, and handing it out as a tax break, and that is the wrong idea.”

The $800 billion figure is from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It is the reduction proposed in the GOP health plan from spending levels currently scheduled under federal law over the next 10 years. Republicans have countered that spending will still increase, but it would be at a much lower level and the CBO says millions will be unable to afford coverage.

Also as part of the health care vote, Cantwell said she feared Planned Parenthood, what she called a vital health resource for rural communities throughout Washington, would be eliminated forever.

“We were worried. I’m just telling you, we were really worried,” Cantwell said. “People just seemed to have wanted to vote for something to get it out of there.”

The “skinny repeal” bill the Senate ultimately voted down would have defunded the nonprofit organization for a year. Republicans have long sought to eliminate federal funding for the organization because it provides abortions. A provision in federal law prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions.

Though the senator, who was appearing at a town hall in Spokane for the first time in at least a decade, earned several rounds of applause and questions introduced by statements of support, she faced criticism for her co-sponsorship of a bill that pushes back on efforts encouraging companies to boycott Israel. Spokane resident David Randall said he believed the bill would infringe his right to express outrage about the conflict and Israel’s role in the bloodshed.

“The Supreme Court has already ruled on this very clearly that boycott is part of the First Amendment and free speech,” Randall said.

The bill, co-sponsored by 47 other senators of both parties, does not prevent individuals from acting in a way they find appropriate, Cantwell said.

“We’re going to continue to work on this legislation, to make clear that there’s no suppression of individual rights in this concept,” Cantwell said. Supporters say the bill expands federal laws opposing unsanctioned foreign boycotts of Israel.

Randall said he wasn’t convinced by the answers to the four or so questions asking about the legislation.

“I think she didn’t answer, specific enough, for my wishes,” he said.

Lili Navarette, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Mexico City, asked Cantwell if immigrants could hope for “an amnesty” that would provide a system for naturalization.

The senator said Congress needs to tackle the country’s immigration policy and referenced Trump’s “Muslim ban and other tactics” in her response, saying legal immigrants in Washington also were living in fear.

“This kind of fear is not what we should be doing, and obviously we want to see immigration policy move forward,” Cantwell said.

Navarette, who earned her citizenship 21 years ago when it was “much easier,” said she was skeptical such legislation would occur given the current political culture in Washington, D.C.

“She did give me hope,” Navarette said. “I feel that I’m a voice for illegal immigrants who can’t speak and are afraid, so I’m going to share my experience that I had here with them.”

Several questions in the crowd came from self-avowed Democrats who wondered who their leaders were in Washington after the departure of President Barack Obama, and how they could retake political offices after losing both chambers of Congress and the White House. Petra Hoy, who wore an “Obama 44” T-shirt, asked Cantwell if the letters of support constituents like her sent their lawmakers were working.

“I was just curious, if it really works,” Hoy said. “It sounds like they are.”

The convivial atmosphere was not lost on Republicans who came to hear Cantwell speak. Susan Wilmoth, a state committeewoman for the GOP, said it was nice to see the support for the senator, though she noted Cantwell doesn’t appear as frequently before voters in Eastern Washington as McMorris Rodgers.

“I wish they could have been equally as polite to our congresswoman,” Wilmoth said of the crowd.

Spokane’s event was the fifth this summer in Washington state for Cantwell, with three in the Seattle area and one last weekend in Wenatchee. After the town hall, she said she anticipated health care would be a big concern.

“We’ve done community meetings, but we hadn’t done something called a town hall,” Cantwell said. “We knew a lot was going on, and we knew people were anxious. So we wanted, definitely, to come here and do one. It’s a big, important part of our state.”