Town hall in Price shows the value of political engagement

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — commonly referred to by her initials AOC — attracts significant attention among political commentators because of her views on Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee, and a 70 percent tax rate on incomes over $10 million. I’m used to people talking about AOC on college campuses, but wasn’t expecting to hear about her at a town hall this week hosted by Rep. John Curtis in Price. It shows just how far the political battle grounds in this country have stretched — from a congressional district in New York to the heart of Utah’s coal country.

The woman who referenced AOC must have been in her 70s. She had white hair and a firm grasp on the issues. I admired her political engagement. Standing in a large auditorium in Price City Hall and speaking into a microphone she said, “If we ran our households like our elected leaders run our government, we would go bankrupt. They need to learn how to budget.” And then came the refrain, “I’m personally worried about AOC.”

Ocasio-Cortez makes a lot of headlines these days. She represents New York’s 14th congressional district and at age 29 is the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and boasts one of the largest social media followings in Congress. And now … her ideas (or fear of her ideas) have made their way to eastern Utah.

Curtis responded to the AOC comment by saying, “Who would have guessed that we would have a day when Nancy Pelosi would be pulling the Ds to the right? There are a number of new Congress members who embrace full-out socialism.”

AOC’s mention was one of many instructive moments for me at the town hall. It reinforced for me the value of showing up and engaging in the public square.

One constituent expressed concern about government waste. He asked if Curtis’ staff could request information on the cost of Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago.

Another woman pled with the congressman to provide help for the behavioral, mental and public health needs of the community. She said, “We are in the bottom tier of these rankings. We need help.”

A retired coal miner asked with a nervous edge if his pension may be at risk because of our nation’s fiscal irresponsibility.

Perhaps the most insightful comment came from the host himself. When asked about the upcoming Mueller report, Curtis answered by saying, “We all make lousy judges because we either watch CNN or FOX and get our opinions from them.”

His comment resonated with me. I could tell from each constituent question which station they watched. Our reality, our truth and our world view come from the channel we watch. That’s the real challenge facing America today — too often people only encounter opinions that coincide with their own and alternative ideas are not considered.

Curtis told the audience he’d been in Congress 16 months and experienced four government shutdowns. Too often we act as if we are two nations, under God. That’s unacceptable. Political division detracts from our success as a nation and our goodness as a people.

The solution lies in what I witnessed in Price this week. Smart, gritty people who care enough to show up and express their views and listen politely to others, while a caring and open-minded elected official listens and shares insights.

Despite the division in our polity, I left the town hall in Price feeling a measure of hope. The marketplace of ideas was well represented — from AOC, to mainstream Utahns, to the political right. People spoke their truth with civility. People listened. My hope deepened when Curtis committed to the audience, “I will keep coming. This is the heart of accountability.”

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