West Valley City • Ben McAdams, Utah’s newest congressman, is a man trying to start his job while a significant portion of the government is shut down, with 800,000 federal workers either furloughed or doing their jobs without pay.
The Democrat and former Salt Lake County mayor held his first town hall meeting Saturday, after having to reschedule it at the last minute because of the political stalemate. When he did stand before voters, a group of about 120 people, he answered questions on immigration, health care and public lands. And the conversation during the hour-long event stayed cordial.
But the partial shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history, loomed over everything. Utah’s freshman House member, who took office two weeks ago and is also going without pay, admitted at one point that he felt he was “drinking from a fire hose” and still uncertain of what normal in the nation’s capital actually looks like. And even as he spoke, President Donald Trump was giving a televised address on the shutdown offering new proposals involving the so-called Dreamers program.
“There’s no easing in,” McAdams said of Washington’s tone lately. “I’m very frustrated that the government shutdown continues. I went to Congress to roll up my sleeves and to dive into these issues. And I think we’re all tired of people talking past each other and not listening to each other.”
Turmoil aside, he noted he was keeping a promise for face-to-face meetings, one he made in his nail-biter of a campaign against Republican Mia Love. He had criticized the previous 4th District representative because she held town halls online.
About 50 minutes into the town hall, the face of the shutdown was staring right at McAdams again, this time in the form of a furloughed worker, someone who didn’t vote for him.
FBI employee Stephen Olsen, 51 — who was there with his two children — said he was still having to show up to work as a cybersecurity expert, with 20 years experience in drug interdiction, counterterrorism and, yes, border security. He’d seen the effectiveness of technology, but he’d also seen duffel bags of drugs tossed over border walls, Olsen said.
“I’ve seen what weak border security looks like. I’ve got skin in the game,” he told McAdams, adding that even though he’d already missed one paycheck, he did not want the government to open until reaching a compromise that boosted security spending.
That said, Olsen told McAdams that he thought both Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats were wrong to grasp at extreme positions. The country needs a more nuanced approach, Olsen said, with a blend of sections of enhanced border, vehicle barriers, fencing, improved technology, surveillance, scanners, dogs and new security personnel.
He urged politicians like McAdams, who has joined the House’s more centrist Blue Dog caucus, to help break the standoff. “I pray with my family every night that you will succeed,” Olsen said.
McAdams thanked Olsen for his service to the country. He noted border security was a complex issue and one he refused to “reduce to a hashtag.” And as to the debate on a multifaceted approach to the impasse that included other immigration reforms, McAdams said, “That conversation, sign me up.” He later said he’d welcome an invitation to talk to Trump directly on the issue.
At another point in the town hall, Clayton Hinman, 66, of West Valley City, rose to speak against any gun-control legislation that he feared might infringe on his Second Amendment rights. As a few audience members began to groan, McAdams quieted them and urged that Hinman’s views be respected and heard.
McAdams later called the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their immigrant parents “an atrocity” and said he would work to reverse it.
He said climate change “is important to me” and that he planned to join a House caucus devoted to the issue, one to which his predecessor Love also belonged. McAdams did not commit, however, to joining an emerging group of House members supporting a broader climate change agenda in what’s been called a “Green New Deal.”
He took questions from 17 people — and vowed to be in the district at least weekly. McAdams noted several times he was learning and new to some issues raised by the audience — and urged them in many cases to send more information. He said he was not jumping quickly when pressured to co-sponsor bills he hadn’t read yet. The crowd seemed to mostly be supporters, but several times, McAdams urged opponents in the audience to speak up.
“I’m better the more I hear what’s on your minds,” he said at one point.
McAdams, who did not vote for Pelosi as House speaker, said he welcomed his own appointment to the House Financial Services Committee. Though not an uncommon first stop for new House members, McAdams said it was a choice he’d sought, in part for its purview over banking, insurance, financial security for families and affordable housing.
He also said he would hold town halls in the district regularly.