By Bridget Manley, publisher
Education, rising interest rates, implications of a looming rail strike and gun control were some of the concerns community members took up with Republican U.S. Rep. Ben Cline at an area town hall meeting Tuesday.
The town hall, which was held at the Bridgewater VFW, was the first time since January 2020 in the Rockingham County and Harrisonburg area where voters could meet face to face with Cline, but only 13 people attended.
Cline, who is holding in-person town hall meetings across the 6th Congressional District, has been outlining his priorities for the next two years, after his re-election earlier this month and as Republicans prepare to have a slim majority in the US House of Representatives starting in January.
One constituent asked whether the recent mass shootings, such as those at the University of Virginia and in Chesapeake among others across the nation in the last few weeks, would prompt him to support waiting periods for gun purchases or a ban on assault-style weapons for anyone under the age of 21.
“I do not support any additional limits on guns or any type of gun control,” Cline said.
Cline, who also formerly worked as a prosecutor with local Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst, also expressed concern about crime in Harrisonburg, saying he was, “shocked at what I see.”
“When I started with Marsha Garst, she had, maybe one murder a year in Harrisonburg, maybe two, and now it’s a dozen,” Cline said. “It’s horrible.”
But Harrisonburg has seen only one homicide so far this year — a fatal shooting on Community Street on Oct. 24 for which police arrested three people. The most recent Harrisonburg City Police crime data through September confirms no other homicides in 2022, although police have responded to a shooting that injured eight people earlier in October off Port Republic Road, a suspicious death in August, and a shooting in June in which no one was injured, according to police press releases.
According to the Virginia State Police Crime in Virginia Analysis, there were two murders in the city of Harrisonburg in 2021. And city police crime data shows one murder in 2020, no murders in 2019, and four murders in 2018.
Cline also addressed the fentanyl crisis, saying the drug was killing people in record numbers. He said that his solution would be to increase resources at the U.S. southern border, where Cline said much of the fentanyl comes through.
“I would like to take the 87,000 IRS agents who were just hired in the last Inflation Reduction Act, and take a pencil and erase ‘IRS agents’ and write in ‘border agents,’” Cline said.
Politifact is one of many outlets that have pointed out that fentanyl is smuggled into the country primarily at legal border checkpoints, and usually by U.S. citizens.
Acknowledging the results of the 2022 midterms, Cline said the election “had mixed results.” While Republicans will take control of the House with at least 220 members, Democrats will maintain control of the Senate.
But Cline said he still viewed the outcome as voters rejecting the idea of one-party control. Cline said House Republicans might not get much accomplished on hot-button issues, such as abortion, but he said he hopes to work across the aisle on issues related to veterans and infrastructure.
He outlined his priorities as the widening of I-81 from Winchester to Bristol, lowering the national debt that now stands at more than $31 trillion, finding solutions to curb inflation, increasing production of fossil fuels, and securing the southern border.
Phil Figero of Bridgewater asked Cline about “indoctrination” of students in public schools.
“I take very seriously the education of our children, and I want to make sure that those who are educating are not indoctrinating — and making sure they are being taught the three Rs,” Cline said.
Cline went on to talk about an “awakening” at the local level of “traditional viewpoints,” saying that people are upset that children are “being taught by more than the three Rs.”
“I am looking to continue my efforts to get the federal government out of education that dictates from federal bureaucrats,” Cline said.
Other constituents asked Cline to be more available and transparent to his constituents. One constituent, Dee Grimm of Mount Crawford, said Cline uses his social media to post memes denigrating Democrats, without posting more substantive content about votes he’s taken or positions he holds.
“Your posts are divisive and inflammatory, as you cycle through complaints about the economy with no solution,” Grimm said.
Another constituent asked Cline about his thoughts on the possibility of U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as speaker of the House. Cline said he has not made a decision about whom he will support for speaker and said that those conversations are ongoing.
Cline is a member of the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative members of the House. Some have vowed not to vote for McCarthy, but Cline said he was still hopeful a compromise could be reached to make the caucus vote for McCarthy.
He then said if they had any suggestions for how he should vote, he was open to hearing them.
“If you think I should be one of the ones who break off and say ‘no way, no how,’ I welcome your comments,” Cline said. “If you think it should be McCarthy, if you think it should be someone other than McCarthy, because a lot of people are talking about that as well.”
Cline spent an hour and a half answering constituent questions. Following the town hall, he spoke with The Citizenabout why he wanted to meet with both those who voted for him and against him, and what he was hearing from those in the Valley.
“The economy and inflation are number one,” Cline said. “They think Washington is missing the vote when it comes to addressing the concerns of working families and businesses, communities like ours in Rockingham County, and making the changes that need to happen to help lower inflation, lower the cost of living, and reduce crime.”
Cline said he was not ready to endorse any candidate for the 2024 presidential race, but he did say he would vote for Donald Trump again if he becomes the Republican nominee.
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