BUCKHANNON — About 100 people filled Hyma Auditorium at West Virginia Wesleyan College Thursday evening to raised questions about climate change, education, health care coverage and more.
In the absence of U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who did not attend the town hall meeting organized by area residents, the questions were directed to an empty chair while the event was videotaped to be sent to the senator’s office.
Daya Wright served as moderator for the town hall and read from a prepared statement at the beginning of the forum.
“All West Virginians are directly affected by the issues and policies that will be discussed tonight,” she said. “Sharing knowledge, expressing concerns and having the opportunity to ask questions of our leaders make a community stronger. Town halls are a basic foundation of our democratic heritage — so much so that Congress intentionally schedules in session time when members are expected to be in Washington, D.C., and district work periods when members are expected to engage with his or her constituents. These recesses intentionally occur during the legislative business periods so the senators can listen to concerns of the people and so the senators can explain their positions relative to those concerns.
“And that is why the town hall meeting was organized — so that Shelley Moore Capito would have the opportunity to learn about the issues that are important to you and to learn about the real life effects of the polices established by our governments, and so that Shelley Moore Capito could explain her position relative to your concerns so that we together as a community along with one of our leaders could generate potential solutions,” Wright said. “More than 1,000 West Virginia residents signed a petition requesting that tonight’s event be scheduled.”
Wright said Capito waited until the day of the event to respond to organizers and decline their invitation to meet with constituents in Buckhannon.
“The petition was delivered to Capito’s office last Friday and telephone contact began with her office last Saturday,” Wright added. “Her staff formally responded to the petition at 11:58 a.m. this afternoon indicating that she would not be able to be in attendance. She had no public engagements scheduled for this evening and her office was unable to provide dates for any upcoming town hall events scheduled for anywhere or any time. And yet, we persist in hosting this town hall this evening because we the people have the right to be heard, because asking questions out loud is important, it is a necessary component of democracy even if our leaders are not physically present to answer these questions.
“It is our hope that Senator Capito will recognize the passion in this room for our wild and wonderful state and the respectful discourse that accompanies that passion and that she will schedule a future town hall with us to address the issues raised tonight.”
Those in attendance had the opportunity to write a question on note cards which were organized by topic.
As time allowed, the questions were read by either Karen Watson from the West Virginia Highlands Indivisible Group in Tucker County, or by the question writer themselves if they so chose. More than 20 people stepped up to the microphone to ask questions of the chair or engage the audience.
The first question focused on the Affordable Health Care Act, which also includes the Elder Justice Act to provide funding for adult protective services. If the ACA is repealed, the speaker asked if the Elder Justice Act would be eliminated as well.
Another speaker wondered if Capito had a plan to protect West Virginia waterways, one of many questions that focused on the environment.
One person questioned Capito’s vote to confirm of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, while another asked about President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
After the forum, Watson said, “I think it went excellently as far as the breadth of the questions and the scope of the questions. There were very insightful questions, but despite that we are very disappointed it did not go well, because the senator herself was not here despite giving her plenty of advance notice. I was hopeful that there would be this kind of crowd because people are so concerned about President Trump.”
Watson said that the video and the questions themselves will be sent to Capito’s office. She hopes the senator will read the questions and watch the video.
“I’m hoping that she will decide that she needs to attend meetings with her constituents in the future, that it’s important that she meet. I hope she actually hears a lot of the questions and considers each one of them and actually makes some changes in her policy.”
Amy Graham, a spokesperson for Capito, said Friday, “Senator Capito looks forward to receiving their questions and comments.”
A staff member from Capito’s office will be at the Upshur County Senior Center Tuesday, Feb. 28 from 11 a.m. to noon to meet with residents as part of a regularly scheduled mobile office hour to assist with casework and issues related to federal agencies.