JUST IN: Citizens’ Town Hall Goes Off

By on February 24, 2017

JACKSON HOLE, WY — While Sen. John Barrasso was reportedly holding a fundraiser in Teton Village, almost 200 people filed into Teton County Library’s Ordway Auditorium Friday night for a citizens’ town hall. Those who couldn’t find a seat in the auditorium watched live streams from inside the library or crowded around the closed doors waiting for someone to vacate a seat. Some even tuned in on their smart phones from the library parking lot.

The town hall meeting was supposed to be a chance for citizens to interact with the Cowboy State’s Congress people. But Senators Mike Enzi and Barrasso and Congresswoman Liz Cheney declined invitations to the event. In their stead sat three cardboard cutouts donated by artist Greta Gretzinger.

Cardboard Congress members care of artist Greta Gretzinger. (Photos: Leslie Petersen)

Spokespeople for each representative listed other engagements as reason for not attending. Barrasso’s press secretary Lauren Mengelkamp rattled off a litany of other Wyoming towns Barrasso would visit this week for community events. Jackson Hole was not among the list. However, The Intercept reported today that Barrasso is in fact visiting the valley, but not to hear from concerned constituents. The fundraiser he is reportedly holding in Teton Village requires tickets to the tune of $5,000 per political action committee or $1,500 per individual.

Citizens take the mic

Public comment at the meeting ran the gamut of Trump-era political concerns. Trump’s alleged relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin came up on multiple occasions, as did his failure to release his tax returns. Educators spoke out in support of public education, and fear of Education Secretary and school choice proponent Betsy DeVos. Jackson Hole High School teacher Orion Bellorado asked the absent representatives what they were willing to do to “protect and enable a just public education system moving forward—something so vital to Wyoming.”

Jackson Elementary special education teacher Jessica Jern reminded the audience that “education is the only way to rise above poverty.” While she realizes and appreciates the value of private and charter schools, she said that such schools are not an option for most kids in Wyoming. “Our state is based on public education,” Jern said.

Also in attendance was Jocelyn Moore from Sublette County—which, she wanted to remind Cheney, is 60 miles south of Jackson.

Federal lands, she emphasized, are “federally managed lands—but they are public lands. They’re American lands. They belong to people in Georgia, Minnesota, Texas … even though you don’t know what the lands are, we do,” Moore said.

Moore also brought up concerns about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In response to Moore’s plea for Barrasso to reconsider the merit of ACA, Barrasso’s email, she said, criticized it for raising premiums. Something that is just not true in her case, she said. Her premiums, Moore told the crowd, actually decreased this year.

Others joined Moore to speak up in support of the Affordable Care Act. Diane Benefiel called herself a “poster child” for ACA and sees herself as a warning to others about having health insurance. She said in 2012 she was denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. She has since been diagnosed with a condition that requires extensive treatments—treatments she cannot live without. And without her Affordable Care Act insurance plan, she said she will lose her retirement and her home.

“I’m not gonna be the only person [who will lose] everything to stay alive,” she said, holding back tears. “I don’t know why [representatives] don’t like people, and why you don’t like people to be healthy … I hope you figure it out.”

The crowd at the town hall was diverse in political experience and age. High school senior Emma Detrick stressed the need for civility in politics and her concern with the lack of role models for her generation. “We’re not blind nor deaf to politics,” she said of her classmates. “We’re also in a time of our lives where we’re looking to role models.” The ones she is seeing now, she said, are “not very good ones.”

“Behind the jokes and hallway chatter, [there is] something far more serious,” Detrick continued. “[It is] the fact that we are hearing rhetoric that teaches us that it’s OK to be divisive and it’s OK to be sexist and racist.”

High school senior Connor Butler expressed concern for protecting LGBTQ people. In a state that gained national notoriety for the slaying of Matthew Shepard, brutally murdered for being homosexual, Butler’s worries were not lost on the crowd. “As an LGBT person, I’m starting to feel not very protected in Wyoming,” Butler said. He called HB135, the Wyoming “Anti-Discrimination” bill that would have protected government workers who discriminated against LGBT people, scary and terrible. The bill was withdrawn in the Wyoming House this session but critics said it was easily the most discriminatory LGBTQ legislation to surface in the nation. Beyond Butler’s own concerns, he said failing to protect the state’s LGBTQ residents could hurt Wyoming’s tourist-driven economy.

Concerned constituents also asked questions about immigration reform, defunding Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts and Trump’s foreign policy. After each comment, audience members held up one of two pieces of paper: green to agree, red to disagree. The room was overwhelmingly dotted with green all night.

Footage from the event will be sent to each representative. Co-organizer Susan Mick told those in attendance that all three representatives have agreed to watch the replay.




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