Racism, health care, tax cuts & more: U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga faces sea of boos at Muskegon town hall

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga addresses the crowd at his town hall in Muskegon. Photo by U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga’s office

Ruth Chmura, a 97-year-old Muskegon resident who served in the U.S. Army for four years during World War II, asked the first question at U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga’s (R-Zeeland) town hall Wednesday evening, and it was one that would be repeated, in some form, throughout much of the event: Why does the congressman back President Donald Trump?

“Can you tell me why you personally continue to support the president, with his hateful speech and his bigoted attitude and his lack of concern for the people of this nation who are needing help?” Chmura said, receiving a standing ovation from most of the couple hundred people attending the town hall held at Orchard View High School in Muskegon.

“As I’ve said a number of times, there are issues I support the president on; there are things I don’t support the president on,” Huizenga responded. “I’ve said a number of times I don’t like the tone and tenor he has taken, and I’ve spoken out about those things, but I want this president to succeed, just like I wanted the last president to succeed… We have to figure out, are we going to work together with the folks who have been elected?”

After Huizenga spoke about Republicans and Democrats needing to work together, several members of the audience yelled, “But do you support the president? Yes or no?”

“Yes, because he’s the president, and I believe that when we’re talking about health care reform and tax reform and infrastructure and a number of other things, he’s on target,” the congressman said, landing loud boos and shouts of, “You believe him?”

Anger and frustration regarding the president and his policies dominated much of the forum, with many in the audience being visibly against Trump; several people wore hats emblazoned with “I miss him,” in reference to President Barack Obama, and “Making America worse again,” a play-on of Trump’s ubiquitous campaign slogan, “Make America great again,” that has followed him into his presidency.

Anger over the Affordable Care Act

Huizenga’s support for Trump’s policies, particularly the president’s push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care bill often referred to as “Obamacare,” did not land him any fans, at least not vocal ones, at the town hall.

“When they tried to jam that joke of a health care bill through, how could you support something that’s so detrimental to most of your constituents?” an audience member asked. “It was a joke. Obamacare has flaws, but why didn’t you work together to iron it out?”

Huizenga voted in May to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, but what was known as the Republicans’ “skinny repeal” bill that aimed to dismantle the ACA failed to pass the Senate in a dramatic vote at the end of July. The bill had landed criticism from legislators on both sides of the aisle, and the Congressional Budget Office [CBO] said in a June report that the Senate bill would “increase the number of people who are uninsured by 22 million in 2026 relative to the number under current law, slightly fewer than the increase in the number of uninsured estimated for the House-passed legislation.”

“Here’s the problem: [the ACA] is collapsing,” Huizenga said to loud jeers. He’d go on to say later in the evening that, “Obamacare, the ACA, as it’s structured, is completely failing.”

“The promise of lower costs has not happened: premiums have gone up; deductibles have gone up,” Huizenga said later in the meeting.

The legislator also criticized the CBO report from June, which estimated that about 15 million more people would be uninsured in 2018, compared to how many are insured under the Affordable Care Act.

“The CBO report says [15 million people], if they are not forced to buy insurance by the government, will choose not to buy insurance from the government,” Huizenga said — a statement that was, again, met with boos.

People often shouted their dissent throughout the event. Following Huizenga’s dismissal of a single-payer, government-run health care plan, an idea that landed numerous cheers and claps from the audience and which Huizenga said “I completely disagree with,” several people yelled, “How do you sleep at night, man?” and, “You call yourself a Christian?”

After the congressman’s stated opposition to Canadian health care, a publicly funded system that provides mostly free care to anyone who is a citizen or permanent resident in Canada and which Huizenga said offers individuals with little to no choice for the health care they can access, one man stood up and yelled, “He’s a waste of time; go do something valuable with your time tonight,” and walked out of the town hall.

A man stands outside U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga’s town hall in Muskegon Wednesday. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Systemic racism & Trump

Huizenga too faced criticism when it came to Trump and racism.

“Where’s your activism when it comes to systems of oppression; where are you on issues that allow these systems of injustice and oppression that allow racism?” Tyjuan Thirdgill, of Muskegon, asked. “[Trump] ran on hateful rhetoric. Why didn’t you denounce him?”

Immediately after Thirdgill’s question, Huizenga asked, “do you believe everyone who voted for Trump is racist?”

“I would never say everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or bigot, but he ran on hateful rhetoric, and that grew hate,” Thirdgill answered.

“I have denounced the hate…I don’t believe all Mexicans are rapists… I have addressed this issue,” Huizenga said, referring to the statements Trump made during his campaign that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

“Is there ever a line our president can cross, and you won’t support him anymore?” one woman shouted out after the above exchange.

“If he did something illegal,” Huizenga responded.

Later in the meeting, Huizenga was asked another question about the effects of Trump’s rhetoric and racism in the Muskegon community.

“There was a noose found in Muskegon. There was racist graffiti on a school,” an audience member said, referring to the noose that was discovered at the Glenside Early Childhood Center’s playground in Muskegon on Aug. 13 and the n-word that was written on a Muskegon High School statue on Aug. 15. Both incidents occurred not long after a neo-Nazi, white supremacist and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia during which Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Jones Jr. drove his car through a crowd of anti-fascist protesters. Trump has landed ire from both the left and the right for his comments following the event in Virginia, when he said “many sides” were to blame for the violence.

“I do feel the presidency of Donald Trump has given license to this kind of behavior,” the audience member continued. Do you believe you have a responsibility to address the systemic and institutional racism in our culture? What is that responsibility?”

“I spoke out on it,” Huizenga responded. “I have an obligation to do that… When we found out about [the noose and the graffiti], one of our first calls was to local law enforcement to find out what was happening. To have those vile words spray painted on a statue is repugnant… You have to change people’s hearts.”

The legislator also criticized Trump’s statements following the rally in Charlottesville.

“Today, President Trump had the opportunity to clearly refute the ideology spread by groups such as the KKK and White Supremacists and failed to do so,” Huizenga wrote on Facebook. “This shouldn’t be a tough decision. If an ideology promotes hate and targets individuals because of their race, religion, or gender it should be refuted.

After Huizenga spent at least several minutes addressing the woman’s question, Thirdgill and other members of the audience asked the lawmaker why he would allot more time for a question about systemic racism from two white individuals and spend little time on a similar question from Thirdgill, who is black.

“You ignored that question, but allowed two non-people of color to ask the same question,” Thirdgill said. “It is blatant disrespect.”

Thirdgill went on to ask about the role systemic racism plays in the United States’ prison system. Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the NAACP.

“You’re absolutely right,” Huizenga told Thirdgill, referring to his statement that the prison system disproportionately affects people of color. “… An equitable system for all people is a basic thing we need.”

The GOP & tax cuts

Tim Henshaw, a professor at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, questioned Huizenga on the GOP’s plan to cut taxes.

“After one of your last town halls, the two of us talked, and you described the results of the presidential election as coming from a river of discontent,” said Henshaw, who lives in the sliver of Grand Rapids included in Huizenga’s Second Congressional District. “…I think that river of discontent stems from massive discrepancies in wealth distribution, income distribution that have taken off in the last 30 years. I see the House GOP getting ready to cut taxes, and I’m wondering how the GOP can jump back into that tax cut mode.”

Aquinas College Professor Tim Henshaw asks a question at U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga’s town hall. Photo by Anna Gustafson

The Trump administration released an outline of their plan to revise the tax code and change tax rates in April. In July, the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, two Washington D.C.-based think tanks, released a report assessing the potential impact of the proposed tax changes. The TPC wrote that the tax cuts, as outlined by the White House, would reduce federal revenue by $7.8 trillion over the next 10 years and specified that the proposed changes “would provide the bulk of the benefits to the highest-income households.”

“Even when taking the tax cuts and all possible revenue raisers together, the administration’s proposed tax changes would be highly regressive, with most benefits accruing to the highest income households,” the TPC wrote.

Under the plan, the TPC found that  taxpayers in the top 1 percent of the income distribution would see an average increase in their after-tax income of 17.8 percent, and middle-income taxpayers would see an average of 3.3 percent. About one-fifth of U.S. households would pay higher taxes than they do under current law.

Huizenga, who sits on the House’s Financial Services Committee, began his response to Henshaw by saying that, “Muskegon County’s doing pretty good overall, but we have spots in Muskegon Heights and more rural areas where unemployment’s in the teens. That’s unacceptable.”

“We have a 35 percent corporate tax rate; President Obama talked about lowering it to 25 percent, and the Trump administration has talked about lowering it to 15 percent. I have a problem with that,” Huizenga went on to say. The corporate tax rate has steadily declined since the 1950s, when it hovered around 52 percent for most of the decade and into the 1960s. In the 1980s, it dropped to around 46 percent. Since 1988, it has hovered around 34 and 35 percent. [You can see all corporate tax rates since 1909 here.]

“I don’t care about hedge fund managers on Wall Street; I care about business owners in Muskegon who want to grow their company,” Huizenga continued. “…I’m not interested in having a slanted playing field for big, massive corporations.”

Funding for students with disabilities

One audience member asked if Huizenga would commit to the federal government fully funding the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA. When Congress first passed IDEA in the 1970s, the federal government has promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities — which was never fulfilled. Most recently, federal funding stands at just 15.7 percent, and local districts and states provide the rest.

“I’d like to have a meeting with you and other educators who deal with special education and sit down and talk through what can be done,” Huizenga said to the audience member. “What is the goal? How do we change it? I’m fully committed to making sure kids have opportunity.”

Though this was not mentioned during the town hall, a House bill to fully fund IDEA was submitted in June. The bill, which has bipartisan support, would increase federal funding for IDEA over the next 10 years to ultimately land at full funding.

Concerns over net neutrality

When asked if Huizenga supports the Federal Communications Commission’s plans to “gut net neutrality,” a reference to FCC  Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to undo the open internet rules that the FCC passed in 2015, under Obama. The move would significantly loosen the government’s ability to oversee high-speed internet providers and essentially allow the internet industry to police itself.

“I think it’s important to have an equal and fair internet; do you stand with consumers, or do you stand with businesses on that?” the audience member asked.

“We need a system that works for individuals and consumers,” Huizenga said. “…I believe there have to be restrictions on the internet, and we have to address that. He went on to say that the internet can’t be “a complete free-for-all.”

Anna Gustafson is the editor of the Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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