Joni Ernst repeats familiar statements at town hall meeting in Washington, Iowa

Sen. Joni Ernst on stage during a town hall at Coe College. Friday, March 17, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann

Sen. Joni Ernst answered questions from 18 randomly selected audience members at her town hall meeting in Washington, Iowa on Tuesday. The hour-long meeting was calm — in contrast to Ernst’s March town hall in Cedar Rapids — even though the way the questions were framed suggested that at least 10 of questioners were not supporters of Ernst.

The topics raised ranged from health care to tax reform to whether the United States is sufficiently defended against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. The last topic was perhaps the only surprise of the afternoon. Fear that America’s infrastructure will be destroyed by terrorists using an electromagnetic pulse — a short burst of electromagnetic energy that can damage and disable electronic devices — is often discussed by fringe rightwing media personalities who sell survivalist supplies to their supporters.

Ernst assured the questioner the U.S. military is aware of the issue, and is working on solutions.

The senator maintained the same friendly, earnest tone regardless of the topic. On health care, Ernst told the audience of approximately 100 gathered in the auditorium of Washington High School that she still favors repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, although she did not say what should replace it. Ernst also favors tax reform, but did not specify any changes she would recommend. Ernst came out in favor of bipartisanship, citing the recent example of the overwhelming Congressional support for a bill to prevent President Trump from reducing sanctions on Russia as a bipartisan success. She did not mention Trump’s opposition to the bill.

Ernst stuck to her standard message of smaller government, less regulation and more bipartisanship even when it had little relation to what the questioner was talking about. Replying to an audience member who said he was tired of immigrants getting “free stuff,” and then said taxpayers shouldn’t have to support “pregnant girls,” Ernst said:

What we need to do is to work together to find the best way forward. I believe less government intrusion in our lives would be better, less government control, less regulation. Regulations need to make sure that they are protecting [sic] people and protecting our environment, but not so over-burdensome they are stopping growth and economic development.

“I didn’t hear anything I didn’t expect,” Kevin, a tall gray-haired man from Ottumwa, said after the meeting. Kevin, who declined to give his last name, was wearing an Indivisible Iowa t-shirt. Indivisible Iowa describes itself as “a network of grassroots groups across the state of Iowa committed to resisting the Republican congressional and executive agenda through organization and direct action.”

Kevin said he’d been a member since last year.

“I didn’t come to protest. I came because this is as close as either one of my senators is coming to where I live,” Kevin explained. “The only reason I was able to come here in the middle of the day on a weekday is because I’m retired. It looks like that’s why most of the rest of the people here were able to come today.”

“I wish more people could come out to these things, because then we might have better discussions,” Kevin said. “I’ve lived in Iowa for 67 years. All seven of my siblings live here. I have six children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren here.”

“I’ve got a big investment in Iowa, and we need to do better.”