Healthcare and border issues dominate Hagedorn town hall discussion
The tensions of a polarized electorate played out in real-time Friday night as Republican Representative Jim Hagedorn held a town hall in Rochester.
It was the third in what Hagedorn promises will be a 21-county tour of the First District. Over 90 minutes, the freshman congressman fielded questions on issues ranging from healthcare to tariffs. On just about every item, Hagedorn said he agreed with the policies of President Trump.
If nothing else, that was what Friday night’s event inside the Rochester Community and Technical College Heintz Center was all about: Trump.
Case in point, the first topic of the night: the Mueller Report.
“I don’t believe we are going to solve the Mueller Report tonight,” Hagedorn said, noting that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, may testify before Congress in July. But as of this moment, “I would not vote for impeachment and I don’t believe that [Trump] did anything wrong in the campaign.”
On immigration, Hagedorn faced the fiercest challenge from the crowd. A number of individuals made passionate pleas regarding the president’s policies on the southern border. Six migrant children have reportedly died in the past year while being held in U.S. border facilities.
Democrats and human rights groups have raised concerns about the conditions of detention centers. Hagedorn, however, quickly shot down a question about whether conditions for migrants — who continue to arrive by the thousands — amount to “government-sponsored child abuse.”
“These are not concentration camps,” said Hagedorn. The congressman was referring to statements made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Democratic representative from New York has compared migrant detention centers to concentration camps.
“There is a difference between a concentration camp, as we know it, and everybody knows what you are talking about, in Nazi Germany. The people that are there; they can leave,” said Hagedorn. “Nobody is holding them against their will. They can leave.”
An audience member quickly responded, “How is a three-month old baby or a four-year-old going to leave a facility like that?”
Hagedorn pivoted, pointing to a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package passed this week in the U.S. House. The package was approved with some bipartisan support. Hagedorn voted in favor of it.
Straight out of the Trump handbook, Hagedorn repeatedly went back to the themes of “law and order” and “securing the border.” The U.S., he said, is already the most generous country in the world on immigration, but there have to be limits. His comments were met with a mix of cheers and jeers.
“My compassion first and foremost, and what we do with this job, is we defend this country and we protect the American people,” he said.
The debate over the border was one of the few instances in which Hagedorn engaged directly with audience members. Upon arrival, attendees were asked to write their questions on paper. Those questions were later drawn from a bowl and read by the moderator, Kathleen Harrington.
The strategy played in Hagedorn’s favor, given he was the only one person at any time with a microphone. It also, though, helped bring a level of civility to a crowd that was divided, rowdy, and at times, angry.
The freshman congressman from Blue Earth County, a mostly rural area about 100 miles west of here, squeezed out a victory in 2018 after campaigning on a pro-Trump platform.
In Olmsted County, however, he lost by 12 points.
Deb Staley, a Democrat who raised the first question regarding Mueller, said after the event that the representative did nothing to change her mind.
“It reinforced my position that we need to elect a DFL [candidate] in 2020,” said Staley, a political activist in the city.
Still, on Friday, Hagedorn tried to win over the Rochester crowd with an issue of the foremost importance locally: the direction of healthcare.
“I can’t travel to Rochester, Minnesota and not think about how critically important it is to maintain the highest quality medical care — and I’m not talking about healthcare delivery, I’m talking about medical care — in the world,” Hagedorn told the crowd of 200 or so.
His message: The single-payer, or “Medicare for All,” proposals being supported by some top Democratic candidates would not sustain the levels of care patients expect here. If implemented, he said the system would be “devastating to Olmsted County and southeast Minnesota.”
“To defend the economic interests of Rochester and Olmsted County, I support patient-centered medical care … to make sure we have competition,” he said.
On trade, another topic of local interest, Hagedorn said he is standing by the president, despite the negative impacts they have had on some southern Minnesota farmers.
A self-described “free trader” who serves on the House agricultural and small business committees, Hagedorn noted he would like to expand trade agreements. However, he said China’s theft of intellectual property, steel dumping, and currency manipulation, have given the U.S. no other choice.
“Farmers, for the most part, the vast majority understand what’s being done with China,” he said. “It wasn’t good and we have to have a better deal for the future, and if we get it right it’s going to help farmers and agriculture.”
Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.
Photography by William Forsman