Beaufort Country residents from both north and south of the Broad River make their way into TCL’s McLean Hall for U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford’s town hall meeting on March 3. Photo by Bob Sofaly.
By Kat Walsh
It started with a problem.
The 300-seat auditorium at the Technical College of the Lowcountry on Ribaut Road in Beaufort wasn’t large enough to accommodate those who wanted to be part of U.S. Representative Mark Sanford’s town hall. By far.
With the auditorium filled and an eager, well-prepared line of about 250 more people waiting, the problem suddenly became: well, now what?
“This is like a snapshot of a day in Congress,” Representative Mark Sanford told the crowd. “Welcome to Democracy 101. It’s like herding eels.”
The consensus –that Sanford speak to both groups in turn – was not easily or happily reached. Amidst chats of “Let’s get started!” Sanford began a town hall that was unusual before it even began.
“This might be the first instance ever in which the government and one of its largest opposition groups are walking in the door together,” said Alexis King of Lowcountry Indivisible. “Mr. Sanford reached out to us,” she said. “He wanted to set up a town hall that brought together Lowcountry Indivisible, the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and Beaufort County Indivisible.” Groups with missions that, more or less do not agree with the Trump agenda. King says Sanford’s offer helps to change the “us versus them” dynamic. “It gives him the chance to look us in the eye and hear our voice.”
Armed with signs that read AGREE and DISAGREE, attendees asked in both Town Hall meetings that covered a spectrum of concerns. The top issues follow:
Eric Esquivel, publisher of La Isla Magazine, said that while he does not support illegal immigration, he does support smart borders. “This problem starting to agitate our communities and we need to fix it.” His question was like many on this issue: How do you think it can be fixed?
Sanford said his focus is on work permits for present and future immigrants and for protecting young people. “I want to leave the young dreamer alone.”
However, his stance on constructing a border wall drew loud opposition from the majority of the crowd. “Conceptually, I support a wall, and it needs to be paid for before I do,” he said.
“That’s what I will be looking at with every bill that comes along. Is it paid for? That is the operative question.”
Who pays for what is also how Sanford explained his rationale for voting to defund Planned Parenthood. “It won’t be about the elimination of the funding but who will be the provider. Who will pay for it,” he said.
“With respect to other views, I don’t want my money going to an abortion. It is my view that what we will see is the same amount funding going to community health centers instead of Planned Parenthood.”
There were many questions and concerns regarding the Obamacare Replacement Act introduced by Sanford and Senator Rand Paul. Many in the audience had stories, and therefore held signs that read “I Have a Pre-existing Condition.” One physician, citing a recent study that concluded only 15% of primary care physicians wanted Obamacare replaced, asked, “Why would you vote to repeal something that 85% of the people in the field support?”
“I admire you for being on the front line and you are the most important driver on the train, but you’re not the only one on the train,” replied Sanford, referring to the many different stakeholders in the healthcare debate.
While Sanford said he doesn’t think our country is ready for a single-payer system, Carol Corbin of Beaufort said that the question she didn’t have time to ask was why. “Single payer healthcare is the only way to reduce the costs and cover everyone. I lived in Canada for 18 years, and 99% of Canadians, including myself, swear by their healthcare system,” she said. “Canadians see Americans as ‘barbaric’ for not having a system that covers everyone.”
“For as long as I can remember, the media has held our government accountable. Is the president’s attack on the media a threat to our democracy?” Pamela Reeding Smith, of Bluffton, asked, bringing applause and a near-universal waving of AGREE signs.
Sanford smiled and said in a welcomed moment of levity, “Let me state the obvious. If there’s anyone out there who has reason to dislike the media, I am the poster child.” He agreed that while the media indeed needs to remain a fundamental check on the power of authority for those who hold office, he also held both the people and the president accountable for making it work.
“With all due respect to President Trump, you cannot boil policy down to 140 characters,” he said. And for the public, Sanford warned of the danger of news versus propaganda and only listening to media that just refers to me.”
With many constituents still waiting and questions still unanswered, Sanford promised to return in two weeks for another town hall in the Bluffton or Hilton Head area.
Corbin believes Sanford took the opposition in stride. “He seems to be willing to take some criticism and to recognize that we are debating deeply held beliefs.”
Indeed, Sanford would agree that the town hall was a perfect example of democracy in action. “This is what’s really cool about our country. Some are more on the right more on the left, yet we can disagree to the core and still be civil.”