Climate change, health care, and the future of the Democratic Party were on US Sen. Edward J. Markey’s mind when he held a town hall meeting at the downtown Paramount Theatre last Thursday. Some 200 people packed in to converse with the senator on those issues and more.
US Rep. Michael Capuano, who represents the Bay State’s seventh congressional district, which includes most of the Boston and its surrounding communities, introduced Markey to the gathering, saying, “We have some interesting times, and I’m being particularly kind with that phrase.”
Capuano was joined on the stage by Mayor Martin Walsh, who echoed his sentiments and added that Boston’s “values are under attack.” In Boston, the mayor said, the effects of immigration policy, environmental policy, and reductions in funding for medical research are hitting especially hard.
As to climate change, President Trump had announced America’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris accord that morning, and Markey was quick to react when he took the stage: “Today was a low point in American history,” he said to murmurs of agreement. “Donald Trump decided he was going to remove the US from the Paris climate agreement. … Today, Donald Trump said that the United States couldn’t do it. That it was too hard.”
Calling Trump “JFK in reverse,” Markey contrasted the two presidents on what would have been John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. He invoked Kennedy’s 1962 speech in which he said the US would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s “and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. … “When the world looked at the United States to be a technological leader, [Trump] said, ‘It’s too hard. We only want to do things that are easy,’” Markey told the crowd.
Trump has effectively ceded the opportunity to advance clean energy to other countries, Markey said. In Massachusetts alone, he noted, there are almost 100,000 jobs in the clean energy sector. By contrast, there are around 77,000 jobs in coal mining across the country today, according to Labor Department data.
In addition to energy, Markey also took up health care in his opening remarks. Although Trump held a listening session on opioids and drug abuse in March, and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the DEA360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit last month, Markey said that killing the Affordable Care Act—and the addiction treatment programs it funds— will make those events useless.
“A vision without funding is a hallucination,” the senator said.
Several of the participants shared Markey’s concerns about health care. One Brookline resident asked him about cultivating personal relationships with Republicans to persuade them to vote against the GOP-driven American Health Care Act. Others advocated for a single-payer health care policy: Stephanie Nakajima, director of communications for advocacy group Healthcare-NOW, asked if Markey would co-sponsor the single-payer health care bill that US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would push.
Markey agreed that a single-payer health care system should be the “long-term goal,” but added that he and his colleagues are “practical Bostonian politicians” and would prioritize it later. “I’ll read Bernie’s bill,” he said. “All of our efforts right now should be focused on defeating the American Health Care Act.”
Ashley Tartarilla, an activist with Indivisible Somerville, was concerned about the current Justice Department. She asked Markey how he planned to fight Sessions’s criminal justice reforms. “We need to apologize to an entire generation of young black men,” Markey answered in sharing Tartarilla’s opposition to Sessions’ policies. “The mandatory minimums were a mistake. The three strikes, you’re out was a mistake.”
Some attendees expressed skepticism about the Democratic Party’s future. One asked what kind of “alternative vision” it could provide, and another asked why the party seemed to be failing, having lost control of many governorships and state legislatures in November.
Markey said in response that Democrats had taken millions of voters for granted at a national level. “Over time, we forgot how to win,” Markey said. “We didn’t organize. Massachusetts never forgot how to organize. … If you want to get inside our internal meetings, that’s all we talk about. ‘What went wrong?’”
Markey also pointed to the Republicans’ technological advantage, saying, “Their analytics were light-years ahead of ours.” He mentioned Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analysis company that is being probed in Congress for potential interference in the last presidential election.
Right now, Markey seems more keen on organizing Democrats than on ousting Trump from office, even as talk of impeachment begins to rise. “What you’ve got to say to yourself, every day, is ‘Okay, only three years and 39 weeks to go,’” Markey said. “It takes time. You have to have energy. … You have to have faith in the American people.”
But not everyone is willing to wait for nearly four years. Ronel Remy, a Haitian immigrant living in Brockton, told Markey that climate change hurts his island country more than nearly anywhere in the world.
After the 2012 earthquake in Haiti, the Obama administration granted temporary protected status to about 58,000 immigrants, allowing them to stay and work in the United States while their homeland recovered. Progress on the recovery was brought to a screeching halt last fall when Hurricane Matthew killed over 1,000 people. A cholera epidemic, spurred by both events, has sickened 800,000 people and killed over 9,000 Haitians, according to The Washington Post.
Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly last week lengthened the time for the protected status, which was slated to end in July, by six months. But many Haitians, including Remy, fear that the island will still not be safe to return to.
As Remy spoke, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American, entered the theatre. She joined Markey onstage, where she said that he has advocated for Haiti for a long time and that the two of them had visited Haiti together last October on the day after Hurricane Matthew made landfall. “He is doing incredible work,” Dorcena Forry said. “I’m just happy to be here.”