Town hall tussle: U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman questioned by constituents

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, shakes hands with constituents following a town hall on the campus of Bay College in Escanaba Wednesday. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Jenny Lancour)

ESCANABA — Attendance was high at U.S. Congressman Jack Bergman’s town hall meeting held Wednesday at Bay College in Escanaba where security was prevalent and a lot of heckling also was taking place.

More than 350 people from the region attended the freshman Congressman’s first town hall meeting in Escanaba, filling up the Besse Theater and overflowing into a room that was set up with teleconference video and audio.

The event was also heavily attended by campus security and Escanaba Public Safety officers, including the police canine.

Facilitator Laura Coleman, president of Bay College, introduced Bergman, who was standing offstage while she asked the audience to be respectful and orderly.

“Yelling and screaming won’t do any of us any good,” Coleman told the crowd, saying the town hall meeting would be extended a half hour beyond the scheduled hour if everyone was civil.

U.S. Congressman Jack Bergman addresses an audience attending a townhall meeting held at Bay College in Escanaba on Wednesday. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Jenny Lancour)

A prayer presented by a clergyman at the start of the meeting had asked the audience to “remain calm, civil and respectful.”

Bergman, 70, a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Marine Corps, represents the 1st Congressional District, which includes about 700,000 constituents residing in 25,000 square miles including the entire Upper Peninsula and the northern part of Lower Michigan.

Once on stage, Bergman talked about his background and why he ran for election last November. He said he decided to become a legislator because of all the concerns he had heard in the district.

Bergman is on the Budget Committee, the Natural Resources Committee, and the Veterans Affairs Committee. He also is the president of the Congressional “Freshman Class” made up of 54 new legislators.

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re Republicans or Democrats — they’re just very good people,” he said of the freshmen, also mentioning a letter which the class signed called the “Commitment to Civility.”

He explained that whatever issue there is, they will “argue, debate, and turn up-side-down” until the best solution is achieved.

Bergman concluded his opening remarks by saying “we’re all in this together” even though everyone may look at things differently. He added, he wants to hear what the audience has to say.

Coleman took questions from forms that were filled out by audience members prior to entering the Besse Theater and the overflow room.

Throughout the meeting, comments including sarcastic remarks and jeers at the congressman could be heard while questions were presented by individuals and Bergman made his replies. He often had to remind audience members interrupting him that it was his turn to speak.

The first question was from a woman who told Bergman he was “a disgrace to the poor.” She asked him why he voted to cut Veterans Affairs funding.

Bergman replied that no votes have been taken on VA funding. He added there are major problems with veterans’ health care that have to be fixed.

Other concerns about veterans’ health care — such as the location of vet clinics and the health choices veterans are limited to — were voiced Wednesday.

Bergman said Congress is discussing options to veterans’ health care. He said the current program is “broken” and has to be changed because the third party contract is not working.

Bergman’s second question of the night asked if he was willing to fix Obamacare, bringing on a roar and a roar of applause from much of the crowd.

“It may be working for some, but it’s not working for others,” Bergman said, adding “It’s past the point of fixing.”

That comment spurred a round of boos from many in the audience.

More heckling interrupted the Congressman as he expressed concerns about many people not having health care and how Obamacare is forcing small businesses to make difficult choices.

“I’m going to vote to repeal Obamacare,” Bergman said, later addressing another concern about the Affordable Care Act. He said he wants to reduce the size of federal government and return more responsibilities to the state level.

Additional questions throughout the meeting — which went a half hour beyond the scheduled hour — related to national spending, budget cuts, Social Security and environmental issues.

His response to national spending inquiries included being in favor of military spending to level out Department of Defense budget cuts made during the past eight years.

Bergman said, in relation to the country’s $20 trillion debt, that Congress is discussing an accelerated debt reduction.

“The number one security issue for this country is its debt,” he said, noting this is a “very serious” issue.

Regarding Social Security, he said he would consider changes, such as raising the cap on Social Security income levels.

In response to environmental issues, Bergman said he does not support defunding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a national program to restore the health of the Great Lakes.

Regarding climate change, Bergman said, “We as human beings have the responsibility to look at everything.”

He said he supports legislation to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act in the Great Lakes states.

In regards to Congress repealing controls on power plant emissions, Bergman said he needed more data before he could reply.

When asked about retiring an aging and failing pipeline, Bergman said, “Anything that negatively effects the environment, I will not support that type of activity to continue … If it’s not safe, shut it down.”

A couple questions referred specifically to President Donald Trump.

Bergman said he will look at the president’s refusal to make public his income tax returns when the issue is introduced to committee.

Bergman said he had no comments to make regarding the president’s expenses for vacations and his wife’s housing in New York because he is too busy to be concerned about this. He also noted these expenses are not a budget line item.

At this point, some members of the audience put up hands wearing red mittens. At various times during the town hall meeting, red mittens were raised in opposition and green mittens were raised in support of issues because signs were not allowed at the meeting, the Daily Press was informed.

A few women in the audience, including two who asked questions, were wearing cat-eared “pink pussy hats,” as worn during a women’s rights march in Washington, D.C., on the day after Inaugural Day.

Other issues which Bergman responded to:

– Bergman said he chose not to take away gun rights for the mentally ill because it infringes on their Constitutional right.

– Bergman favors funding for a super-size navigational lock at the Soo Locks and is pushing for the Army Corps of Engineers study on the project to be released.

– The congressman expects Meals on Wheels for seniors will continue because people of all ages need food.

– Regarding cuts in Essential Air Service, Bergman said Michigan can’t afford to have this taken away because of the economic impact it has on communities.

– He does not support cuts at the National Institutes of Health.

When asked about religion and the separation of church and state, Bergman said the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, adding, “It is up to us to practice our faith.”

He also noted that congressmen pass, repeal, or modify laws to drive policy and do not allow bureaucratic policy to drive laws.

In reference to campaign statements he made, Bergman said he remains pro-life and will continue to put America first in economic decisions and policy decisions.

Bergman noted that any questions that were submitted and not presented Wednesday would receive a written answer.

During his closing remarks, Bergman told the audience, “If we don’t figure out ways to work together… then shame on us.”

He added he will make every effort to address issues while in Congress.