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The City Journals

Curtis encounters frustrated constituents at Draper town hall

Sep 23, 2019 11:14AM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

Congressman John Curtis held a town hall in Draper Aug. 21.

By Mimi Darley Dutton | [email protected]

Representative John Curtis held a town hall Aug. 21 at Draper City Hall. Draper Mayor Troy Walker introduced Curtis, the two having met while serving simultaneously as mayors when Curtis was mayor of Provo. “There’s no better job than being mayor,” Curtis told the crowd. He later said his time as mayor taught him it’s okay to come into a room of angry people. 

“I can tell by the size of this crowd that some of you might be a bit frustrated,” he said to the people gathered, who were vocal on issues such as gun control, climate change, healthcare, women’s equality, federal lands and anger over the actions of President Donald Trump. One woman made a statement about “our current president” and Curtis laughed in reply and said, “You can’t say his name!”

Curtis offered what he called “positive-oriented” thoughts before taking questions from those in attendance. “You get to hear everything bad we do, and it’s probably all legitimate,” he said. He proceeded to tell the crowd of a recent visit to Israel with 70 other congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans, that he said was full of building relationships while seeing the situation there.  

He spoke of a recent bipartisan bill, passed and signed into law by the president, in an effort to combat the nation’s opioid problems. He also mentioned a successful bipartisan bill to combat human trafficking and another reducing regulations on small business loans. Curtis said he’s worked with Senator Mitt Romney to pass a bill in the House of Representatives that brought ranchers and environmentalists together in agreement on land use. “Rarely are we able to come together with those groups. That bill was signed into law a couple months ago,” he said. 

All the while, a man stood silently in the back of the room, flipping through the pages of a large paper tablet that listed cities where mass shootings have occurred and a tally of the lives lost at each location.

Melanie Stone of Draper asked, “Given the fact that we just saw that Utah is dead last with regard to equality for women, what concrete actions are you taking to get us out of last place with women’s equality?” Curtis replied that he’d voted against the equality act because it was “a terrible bill” in that he felt religious liberty would lose. He said he tried to add amendments to bring it back in line, but that wasn’t successful. He told Stone his efforts on women’s equality “started with the way I treat my wife.” 

Asked about the federal deficit and a recent bill that suspended the debt ceiling, Curtis said, “I found myself in a Republican-controlled house, voting to raise the debt ceiling. I was being lobbied by my Republican colleagues to support it. I voted against that one and a half years ago. This year a similar bill was put before us. I voted against it.” 

He went on to say that he’s been in Washington for four shutdowns when the government couldn’t agree on a budget. “I’ve seen firsthand how it costs us far more to go into a shutdown mode. Inevitably, everyone gets paid and we haven’t saved any money and it’s a huge hit to the economy. It’s discouraging that both parties seem to be participating in this. I’m trying to find a way to influence my colleagues. It feels like they don’t sense the urgency and they don’t care,” he said. 

Regarding gun control, Gaylin Bennion of Cottonwood Heights said, “It’s imperative that we do everything we can. We can have laws to make it safer.” Another audience member stated that 85% of suicides are a result of firearms. “You have to be realistic. We have to put something out of the House that the Senate will pass and the president will sign,” Curtis said. Several people replied, “Put it before the Senate,” and there was clapping when a man in the room said, “Everyone here would support the background checks bill.”

Mark Petersen of Sandy thanked Curtis for his work on sustainability, but both he and Curtis agreed it’s never enough. “So much of the climate dialogue is partisan. As long as it is, we’re not going to accomplish anything,” Curtis said. 

On the issue of health care, Curtis said, “From the moment (former Senator John) McCain put his thumb down, the Affordable Care Act was here to stay. We lost so many seats because we failed to come up with health care answers. I think we get that we have so messed it up.” He went on to say, “There’s a major chink in the pharma armor. I think you’ll see that influence waning in Washington, DC…with this opioid thing.” 

On campaign finance reform, Curtis cited the McAdams versus Love campaign that cost approximately $10 million, most of which Curtis said came from out of state and a dollar figure which he called “absurd.” He recognized that most of his campaign funding came from PACs (political action committees) rather than Utahns. “Every person I know in Utah is tired of giving me money. I think the best donations are Utah donations. I will readily admit that’s not the case in Washington, DC — there are lots of games. You have to watch if someone is giving large amounts of money if there are games being played. One of the things we haven’t figured out is how we do this without doing that,” he said. 

Regarding public lands, Curtis said it’s a matter of lack of trust with the stakeholders. “When I sit down with them, they want almost exactly the same thing, but we have to make compromises on what we call it — and agree on what we do with this land and how we do it. Monument is a sloppy designation — let’s not get hung up on it has to be a monument, let’s get hung up on we have to do what is best for the land,” he said.

“There is clearly a pent up desire for your congress person to represent you when the president does things out of alignment with our values,” Curtis said, to which the crowd applauded. “Every time that my staff hears something that is out of alignment with Utah values, we talk about an appropriate response,” he said. Curtis said he’d hoped to tell the president directly that separating children from their parents at the border was out of line with his constituents’ values. But Curtis wasn’t able to speak to the president directly at a meeting Trump held with Republicans at the time. So Curtis said he spoke with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Chief of Staff John Kelly on the matter, both of whom are no longer part of the Trump administration. “I have to make a choice. If all I was doing was responding to (the president’s) tweets, that’s all I would do, but I don’t think that’s why you sent me back there,” he said. 

Curtis’ allegiance to the Republican party in the Trump era was questioned by several present. “I’m very proud to be a Republican on many issues — neither party has an exclusivity on righteousness, both have things that make them good and virtuous and both have things that make them problematic,” he said. 

Curtis said some people have requested that he respond to Trump in a more bombastic or Trump-like manner. “I have a hard time responding with the same vitriol,” he said.  

At the conclusion of the meeting, Curtis said he actually really enjoyed the evening. “You’ve been a little bit testy,” he said, “but actually pretty good.”