Photo by Robin Duff / Staff Writer
Story by Sarah Grace Taylor / Editor-in-Chief, Caleb Revill / Staff Writer and Robin Duff / Staff Writer
The MTSU College Republicans’ “Ask Your Reps” event excluded many attendees, resulting in protests outside, and then inside, of the Student Union Building Thursday night.
The event, hosted by the MTSU College Republicans, featured Diane Black (District 6), Jim Tracy (District 16), Mike Sparks (District 49) and Bryan Terry (District 48) and was preceded by a planned protest held by the MTSU College Democrats, MTSU Generation Action and MTSU Young Greens.
With priority given to families of the representatives and members of the College Republicans, event organizers strictly limited admittance to 84 people, citing the Parliamentary Room’s capacity. Over 100 people were left in the hallway, chanting “let us in.”
Before the meeting: the planned protest
Dalton Slatton, President of the MTSU College Democrats, as well as several other speakers from all across the democratic spectrum spoke to the crowd of about 50 protesters at 6:30 p.m.; there were several topics of discussion, focusing on Planned Parenthood and Immigration.
“The town hall is basically on healthcare and tax reform,” Slatton said. “And you know what? There’s immigration to be talked about, because the executive order was just blocked in the 8th district court of appeals.”
Several counter-protestors attended as well, wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and carrying pro-Trump signs. Despite this, a peaceful compromise was made early on.
“Thank you for coming out and voicing your opinions so that we can all hopefully come together and get consensus, and govern this great nation,” Slatton said when addressing the counter protestors. “We’re not the enemy here, you’re not our enemy. We’re all Americans. We’re all Tennesseans, and we all bleed red blood.”
Afterward, Lauren Shuler, President of the Planned Parenthood affiliated organization Generation Action, spoke to protestors about Congressman Diane Black’s obligation to the people.
“Our representatives and senators can’t ignore us anymore, we’re going to be face to face,” Shuler said. “That’s their job. This is democracy, they work for us.”
Before long, the protestors were allowed inside the building to gather outside of the student parliamentary room, where the event was being held. While waiting for the event to begin, several more speakers spoke to the crowd.
Outside of the meeting: the unexpected protest of those excluded
Around 7:45 p.m., over 100 students, activists and citizens from the districts of the representatives were told that due to the size of the room, they would not be allowed to attend the meeting for which they came to campus.
As College Republicans were ushered to the front of the line, tensions grew and the people left in the hallway began chanting “let us in” and “if we don’t get it, shut it down.”
After a few minutes of chants, doors locked and the event began. While about half of the people in the hallway left, the others filled the alcove lobbies of the SUB hallway and huddled around laptop and phone screens to watch the lifestream of the event on Facebook.
“In the very, very early stages of planning, we were only expecting to fill about half of this room,” MTSU College Republicans Chair April Carroll told “Sidelines” after the event. “When things got as big as they did, and got as large as it did, it moved so quickly that we did not have time to reserve another room.”
Carroll cited university policy, saying the group had no way of anticipating crowd size, but many protesters alleged it was strategic.
“[April Carroll] looked at me in my Planned Parenthood gear, looked at the woman handing out tickets and went like this, shaking her head,” Shuler, who had been left in the hallway, said, gesturing a “no” with her hand.
Carroll submitted the following after publication in response to Shuler: ” I wanted to note that it was our male Vice President, Connor McDonald, who held the tickets the entire time. If she was referring to Cynthia, the building manager, I was told by the officers on duty that we needed to close the doors because we had reached capacity, and I was letting her know as per their request.”
While Carroll insisted it was a purely logistical problem, many attendees accused the College Republicans of intentionally shutting out people with dissenting view points, referencing other events during which the Parliamentary Room had exceeded capacity.
As representatives came out of the event, attendees who had been left outside lined the hallways to boo and shout questions that they had been unable to ask. While MTSU Police limited where in the hallway attendees were allowed to stand, a row of students with Planned Parenthood signs lined Black’s exit, shouting questions about healthcare. Black, surrounded by company, walked briskly, ignoring questions from the people she represents.
In the meeting: a play-by-play of the town hall
The panel began at 7:30 p.m. and was moderated by Murfreesboro lawyer Scott Kimberly. Kimberly asked pre-selected questions emailed to the MTSU College Republicans and then took questions from the audience.
The first question Kimberly presented to the panelists was about health care and the Affordable Care Act.
“For the first time, health care takes up more than 10 percent of the average American worker’s income. What steps should we expect this session to help bring health care costs under control?”
Black answered first, saying, “If you want to bend the cost curve on medicine, you get rid of the Affordable Care Act.”
Black continued, saying that premiums and deductibles have gone up under the ACA, while consumer choice has gone down. She stressed the need for choice, stating that residents in two-thirds of Tennessee counties only have “one health care provider in their area to choose from.”
“We’re going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and we’re going to replace it with something that is going to be good for the American people,” Black said in closing.
State Senator Jim Tracy answered next.
“(The ACA) has to be totally repealed and replaced with something competitive,” he said.
Tracy agreed with Black that steps need to be taken to lower health care costs and increase the number of plans available to Tennessee residents.
“I’m confident that Congress will go in and put together a great plan that will be a better plan at a lower cost and will cover things that the individual citizen will want covered,” Tracy concluded.
Kimberly then asked the second question: “What will you do at the state and national level to ensure that individuals who gained coverage under “Obamacare” will still have access to affordable health care?”
State Representative Bryan Terry answered, saying that having insurance under Obamacare did not guarantee access to care.
“When you have high deductibles and low access, you don’t really have insurance,” he said.
Terry then cited his efforts to ensure patients retain access to prescription drugs, including the recently filed Reliable Coverage Act (SB 991/HB960), which would protect consumers by preventing prescription coverage reductions outside of the open enrollment period.
Kimberly prompted State Representative Mike Sparks to discuss health care costs. Sparks responded by saying he does not have “all the answers,” but that he was concerned about high costs for younger consumers.
“I worry about your generation,” Sparks said. “Look at how much debt some of you have with college tuition.”
Black answered Sparks and addressed the issue of how to lower costs.
“Allow some competition,” Black said. “With that competition, you’ll see more choice and a lowering of the cost of health care.”
Black stated that if federal regulations on insurance plans were reduced, insurance companies would be able to provide more coverage options to consumers. She also addressed how low-income individuals would pay for health care.
“For those of you who don’t have the kind of dollars that other can expend on health care, we (provide insurance) through tax credits,” Black said. “But we give an opportunity for those tax credits to be used to find something you like and that is affordable.”
Kimberly then took one question from the audience. MTSU student Dean West asked, “If you repeal Obamacare, how can we be sure you’ll create a healthcare plan that will actually give healthcare to people?” West then expressed concern that the lawmakers who want to repeal the ACA didn’t have a plan to replace it.
Black answered by directing audience members to the a blueprint of a healthcare plan that is available online [http://abetterway.speaker.gov/?page=health-care].
“We know change is coming,” Terry added. “That is an opportunity and a challenge we must face. You must hold us accountable.”
Kimberly then moved on to the topic of tax reform, asking, “The medium household income fell nearly $2500 under President Obama’s leadership in office. What steps are Republicans looking to take to increase the take-home pay for the average American worker?”
“You have to control cost,” Sparks answered. “Costs are going up and a lot of (people) are having a tough time.”
Black continued by stating that the country’s economy needs to grow at a higher rate in order for incomes to rise.
“We need to stop putting so many regulations on our businesses,” Black said. “Every regulation costs a business owner to abide by that regulation. When they do that they grow their employees’ salaries.”
Black also cited a plan to simplify and lower tax rates in order to stimulate the economy and raise incomes.
“When taxes go down and we give businesses the opportunity to expand, income can grow,” Black said.
Tracy agreed, attributing Tennessee’s 7 percent growth rate in 2016 to its low tax rates.
“We’ve cut taxes in Tennessee, and we’ve seen growth,” Tracy said. “It works in Tennessee, it’ll work in the United States.”
Kimberly opened up the floor for questions. The first was directed to Black.
“When Medicaid is converted into block grants and the federal money dries up, how much will Tennessee have to come up with to make up all those millions of dollars and where would it come from?” asked Gary Clark.
Black answered by saying, “We want to be sure that when we send the money down, we also index it so it continues to grow and doesn’t leave the state in a bad situation.”
The next question came from a woman in Black’s district: “Why not, instead repealing, fix what’s wrong with “Obamacare” and expand Medicaid so everyone has insurance?”
Both Black and Terry rebutted, stating that nearly 20 million healthy individuals chose to pay a fine and opt out of “Obamacare” and that it was a flawed system from the start. Tracy said that the states should be allowed to design their own health care systems.
“We can do better at the state level than they can at the federal level,” Tracy said. “We have to have the leeway and ability to do it.”
MTSU student Mike Carlson then asked, “How can I trust that you’re going to do anything that’s in the interest of any of us? There are people that have cancer, that have to have that coverage in order to make sure they don’t die, and you want to take away this coverage. How can I trust you to do anything that’s in our interest at all?”
Kimberly thanked Carlson for his question, but stated that it was too similar to Dean West’s earlier question and opted to move on without allowing the panelists an opportunity to answer.
The next came from a Vietnam veteran who asked, “Why is it taking so long for the committees in charge to repeal “Obamacare”?”
“The hold up is that we want to do it right,” Black answered. “We want to make sure that no one is hurt by what we do and that we have something there to replace what is there right now.”
The final question of the night came from Dalton Slatton, President of the MTSU College Democrats: “Republicans are known for being anti-big government, yet you’ve all either co-sponsored or voted in favor of legislation that would limit when a woman can receive an abortion. How is it possible to be anti-big government but be in favor of something so intrusive to women’s health?”
Slatton’s question was answered by applause from the audience.
Black, who is pro-life, answered by saying, “Abortion is health, but I do believe in women’s health care. The money that is being used to take life, I believe should put into the clinics that provide true comprehensive healthcare for women. I will always support that.”
Black’s comments were received with both applause and dissent from the divided crowd in the audience.
Tracy answered only by saying, “I believe life begins at conception. Period.”
While Sparks and Terry answered, several audience members interrupted and Kimberly struggled to maintain order, ultimately concluding the panel. He turned the mic over to Carroll who thanked the audience for attending.
“We greatly admire the First Amendment rights,” Carroll said in conclusion. “And you handled it beautifully. I want to thank you for being so peaceful.”
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To contact News Editor Brinley Hineman, email email@example.com.
Edited to include MTSU Young Greens as a protest host in paragraph two 11:53 p.m. February 10.
Edited to include Rep. Terry in paragraph two and second quote from Carroll which was submitted after publication 12:02 a.m. February 11.