Joni Ernst appreciates 'calm, civil' town hall meeting

U.S. senator from Iowa talks health care, Planned Parenthood and immigration

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst responds to questions from audience members during a town hall meeting at the Washington High School Performing Arts Center in Washington, Iowa, on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst responds to questions from audience members during a town hall meeting at the Washington High School Performing Arts Center in Washington, Iowa, on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

WASHINGTON, Iowa — U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst appreciated the “calm and civil” atmosphere that prevailed for most of her 65-minute town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon — a sharp contrast from just months ago.

“I think the audience appreciates it very much, too, because not only do I get to hear what their thoughts and feelings are, I’m also able to answer questions,” the Iowa Republican said after responding to questions on health care, defunding Planned Parenthood, immigration, electromagnetic pulse threats, Russian meddling in the election, President Donald Trump’s response to violence in Charlottesville and the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“People are much more civil when they are coming out to these town halls” than they were five months ago when Ernst had town hall meetings in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. At those, audiences booed, jeered and tried to shout her down when she answered questions.

Tuesday, the audience of about 200 at Washington High School clapped when she was introduced and again when she finished after responding to about 15 questions.

She didn’t necessarily win over everyone, “but I think they’re finding there might be things we agree on as well,” Ernst said. “We get better ideas when we’re working together and actually having a conversation.”

There were a few boos when Ernst said she voted three times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“We know it’s not working,” Ernst said.

She gave the story of an Iowa family of four that dropped its health insurance because it couldn’t afford the $34,000 annual premium.

“You tell me what beginning family can afford that,” she said. “I don’t know of a lot of Iowa families that make $34,000 they can spend on premiums.”

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There was a smattering of applause when Ernst talked about Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patti Murray, a Republican and Democrat, making plans for hearings on health care solutions when lawmakers reconvene in September.

Ernst hopes Congress can start by finding solutions for people in the individual insurance market who are facing the prospects of having no coverage or premiums rising rapidly.

“We have a lot riding on this. We have to get it done in September,” Ernst said.

She reaffirmed her support for border security. When the border is not controlled, Ernst said, it encourages the flow of drugs, guns and human trafficking.

At the same time, she said, the nation — including Iowa — needs legal immigrants to fill jobs where labor can’t be found otherwise.

Asked about children in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program started during the Obama administration, Ernst agreed, “we have a place for them. We can look out for them.”

“I bet many of them don’t know they aren’t American citizens,” she added.

The most contentious point of the town hall came when a woman challenged Ernst’s vote to defund Planned Parenthood.

“You hurt my community, my loved ones. You have hurt us,” said Alexandra Rucinski, of Burlington. “I represent thousands of Iowans who have lost health care, women’s health care, vital resources that were taken away because of decisions that you made.”

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Ernst defended her decision, pointing out that funds that didn’t go to Planned Parenthood will instead go to a qualified community health center, which she said “vastly outnumber” Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa.

“I will stand by my decision,” she said as audience members booed and expressed disagreement.

“I am pro-life,” she added to applause.

It was the second town hall meeting this week for Ernst, who visited Tipton Adaptive Daycare earlier Tuesday. She has several county meetings planned, mostly in western and northwestern Iowa before the Senate returns to Washington after Labor Day.

To watch a replay of the meeting, go to thegazette.com/subject/news/joni-ernst-town-hall-live.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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