Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Getting Local with Rep. Andy Barr: Environment, Health, Immigration All Connected

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Andy Barr (R) is the United States Representative for Kentucky's 6th congressional district since 2013 and offers "mobile office hours" every second Tuesday of the month. Today, less than a month after Trump's inauguration, 30 people showed up at his Lexington office in Hamburg to share their concerns about what is going on in Congress, with Trump, with our country, and with our state. Mr. Barr wasn't there, but his staffers were, and they got an earful from a room filled with concerned citizens who were well-informed, articulate, passionate, respectful and firm in their convictions that he must listen to his constituents. Some of us were from Together We Will Bluegrass, others were from the group Indivisible-Bluegrass, and some were citizens who showed up on their own.  We shared many of the same concerns during the hour-long meeting.  

Mr. Pat Melton, seated in light blue shirt,
was Mr. Barr's spokesman at the meeting.
We began by expressing our appreciation that Mr. Barr was willing to open his offices to his constituents at all, given that his counterparts in the Senate (Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul) refuse to meet with citizens, do not answer phone calls or allow for recorded messages, and offer no way for our voices to be heard.  Nevertheless, our questions began with inquiries as to when Mr. Barr would be holding a town meeting, since he has not done so since 2014.  The staffer representing Mr. Barr, Mr. Pat Melton, had just started his position two weeks ago and, while gracious, amenable to our concerns, and not hostile in any way, was understandably not up to speed on his boss's schedule, positions or policies.  Nevertheless, he insisted that Mr. Barr was committed to listening to his constituents and keeping our best interests at heart.

We pointed out that Mr. Barr's actions indicated otherwise.  For example, many of us filled out the constituent survey on Mr. Barr’s website. We wondered who designed the survey, and why are there so many false choices presented that are skewed toward a conservative agenda?  If Mr. Barr is supposed to represent all constituents – progressive and conservative – wouldn’t it be prudent to listen to those who do not agree with him, but whose votes he needs to be reelected?

Another example of Mr. Barr's apparent lack of concern for his constituents has been his push for deregulating banking.  As Jane Eller from Indivisible Bluegrass pointed out, Mr. Barr has sponsored or cosponsored 9 pieces of legislation to deregulate banking.  How can we be protected from credit and mortgage scams and other scurrilous banking practices that led to the 2008 crash if Mr. Barr insists on deregulating banks?

There were also pointed questions about Mr. Barr's attacks on the Affordable Care Act, and serious concerns about the lack of access to health care that would result from abolishing health insurance for Kentucky citizens.  

My question had to do with environmental issues, which are very much a matter of public health.  I addressed my question from a faith perspective as Lutheran clergyperson:

I am distressed that Mr. Barr voted to overturn regulations that protect citizens from coal industry pollution.  Coal mining interests have invested $435,000 in his campaign committee and political action committee since his first run for Congress in 2010, making the sector his top supporter.  For the 2016 election cycle, Barr tops all of his House of Representatives and Senate colleagues in coal industry contributions, with almost $44,000 as of the end of September.  There’s no war on coal.  There is a war on public health.  And he is receiving half a million dollars to wage that war.

These were commonsense protections that did not harm the industry in any way.  Having a 100-foot buffer between coal mining and streams is about the length between two bases on a baseball field.  That is barely enough land to put between the harmful coal pollution and the sensitive streams that feed into the drinking water supplies for thousands of Kentucky residents.  And the requirement for coal companies to restore streams and return mined areas to conditions similar to those before mining took place is simply being a good neighbor.  We’re taught as children in Sunday School – if you make a mess, you must clean it up. 

I know that Mr. Barr is attends an Episcopal church.  The Anglican/Episcopalian document, “Stewardship of Creation” (2002) says that a goal for the church is to:  “encourage all members of our congregations to understand that God calls us to care for the creation by making our communities and environments better places for the next generation than they were in our lifetime.”  I’m interested in how Mr. Barr, who is a Christian, and an Episcopalian, can rationalize his actions while still claiming to be a Christian?  

Mr. Melton had no response for this.  And my question was followed by inquiries from others around the room about Mr. Barr's stance on climate change, if he would protect the EPA, and why he doesn't draw on the wisdom of scientists in his district on these issues. It was also pointed out that the immigration ban is keeping much-needed foreign doctors from our rural areas where they are desperately needed, and that doing away with the ACA would eliminate health care for coal miners suffering from black lung.  We as citizens were unanimous in our demand for the strongest possible health and safety protections for our state, our land and waterways, and each other.

Several other concerns were raised and issues addressed:
* An impassioned plea from the group not to defund Planned Parenthood (even from those in the room who oppose abortion).
*  Urging Mr. Barr to support efforts to remove Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.
* Concerns from a local elementary school teacher whose students from immigrant families are scared that their parents will be taken away and they will be left alone.
* Genuine fear about the state of our country due to President Trump's executive orders, chaotic leadership, and constant barrage of lies.

Valentines for Mr. Barr.
At one point a question was asked if Mr. Barr would be willing to stand up for the people of Kentucky - even if it meant standing against the Republican Party and even losing financial support from big donors.  Mr. Melton insisted that his boss's heart was in the right place.  

I ended by asking what Mr. Melton would like to see from us, what we could do to be helpful as concerned citizens.  He encouraged us to make appointments to speak with him, to keep showing up for events, and to maintain our level of engagement in this process.  And he promised to share our concerns with Mr. Barr.

I cannot speak for everyone who was there, but for me, the level of energy that room, the fact that people had done their homework and were so well-informed about the different bills and policies in our government, and that this many people took time on a Tuesday afternoon - Valentine's Day even - to share their concerns, was incredibly heartening.  

Indeed, this is what democracy looks like!

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this post. Good recap. I look forward to Pat Melton getting Survey results on the website.


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