By Matthew M. Robare
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) met with a group of his constituents Saturday at a town hall-style meeting at the Northampton Center for the Arts. The meeting lasted for about two hours and saw Kerry address issues raised by concerned residents of western Massachusetts – some of whom were not happy with the recent record of the Democrats in Washington.
The former presidential candidate’s record concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew the ire of a number of activists in the room. He was also booed several times over the government’s response to America’s ongoing financial crisis.
Ben Grosscup, a member of the Amherst Town Meeting, challenged Kerry on the war in Afghanistan. He claimed the United States invaded Afghanistan in order to build oil pipelines from Central Asian former Soviet republics, said that the American military is the most reactionary group in the country and asked Kerry to defend his record on war funding. Kerry responded that Afghanistan was invaded for harboring Osama bin Laden, that the Afghan government would fall immediately if American troops were withdrawn quickly and that he feels the war has kept America safe from threats of terrorism.
“We’ve managed to protect America from several plots over the past several years,” said the senator, who was born outside Denver but has lived in Massachusetts for much of his life.
David Moran, of Springfield, said he was a victim of police brutality and asked how the United States could condemn police attacks on peaceful protests in Egypt while police brutality was going on at home.
“I do think by and large that police officers do a good job in a difficult situation,” Kerry said. He added that the United States has institutions in place to hold police accountable for their actions and that if Moran felt that local institutions weren’t doing enough, he could always turn to him.
“We have to decide what kind of country we want to be,” Kerry said. “[The Republicans] are wrong and we’re going to fight them.”
Kerry said he has been distressed by Americans’ lack of understanding of world affairs and disappointed by what he sees as Republicans’ lack of willingness to work on environmental issues.
I have been “dumbstruck by the way the United States as a body politic is oblivious to the world,” he said, adding about Republican legislators that he would like to stop “these neanderthals from going backwards.”
Kerry said recent political maneuvers in Congress have frustrated him, and that he feels the current Congress is acting in a narrow-minded, irrational manner.
“What I saw on the floor of the last 48 hours of the House churned my stomach,” he said. “The lack of thought, intellect and consequence . . . I feel a sense of urgency for our country.”
A person in the back of the room asked about the alleged torture and solitary confinement of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking a vast amount of information on the war in Afghanistan through the Web-based government watchdog organization WikiLeaks. The question led to a brief chant of “Free Bradley Manning.” In response, Kerry promised, “I will join with John McCain and we will make sure it stops,” to huge cheers.
Kerry also spoke extensively about government spending and the economy. He said most of the current budgetary fight in Congress is over 12 percent of the entire budget and that most of the budget is composed of social security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending, which will not be slashed.
“What is spending, what is investing?” he rhetorically asked. “If we turn around and cut mindlessly, we’re going to eat the seed corn of America.”
The senator said he believes the economy was over-regulated and over-litigious. He talked about the need for infrastructural investment, such as building a more cohesive national electric grid, reducing health care costs and building a more extensive high-speed rail network.
“We’re living off our parents’ and grandparents’ investments,” Kerry said. He added that China spends nine percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, Europe spends five percent and that the United States lags behind, spending less than two percent of its GDP on domestic infrastructural development.
“I don’t want to see us wasting money,” he said. “We’ve got to create fiscal accountability without compromising our values.”
He said that the Democrats’ current budgetary priorities include cutting military spending and improving and extending the safety-net of social welfare programs by making them fairer and more cost-effective. He said job creation has slowed and companies were moving overseas because President George W. Bush’s policies had slowed wealth creation, meaning, in his opinion, that capital was being sent to high-growth countries like China and South Korea.
Improving the country’s financial condition and infrastructure, Kerry suggested, could lead to more investment.
“We don’t have to do everything at once,” he said. “As long as [financial and infrastructural] numbers are good, the marketplace will respond appropriately.”
The meeting was opened by Northampton Mayor Mary Claire Higgins, who presented Kerry with a resolution passed by the city council calling on Washington to stop funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That presentation was heavily cheered.
Kerry began the discussion on a light note, breaking from his oft-stentorian persona.
“The mayor asked me how I wanted to be introduced, and I said I wanted to be carried in an egg like Lady Gaga,” he joked.
Matthew M. Robare can be reached at email@example.com.