Congressman Garret Graves holds his own town hall meeting Thursday in Central
Tensions occasionally boiled over Thursday night as a divided crowd filled the Central Branch Library to hear Congressman Garret Graves give his take on various controversies of the new Trump administration, including the president’s recent attempt to impose a travel ban on seven Middle East countries.
Dressed casually with rolled up sleeves and an untucked shirt, Graves, R-Baton Rouge, did almost all the talking. He read aloud from a stack of written questions from the audience. They covered everything from the wisdom of a national sales tax — Graves has concerns — to allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice — Graves said he’s against special rights for the transgendered.
The town hall, scheduled for 90 minutes, ran almost an hour longer as Graves finished answering the stack of questions.
Occasionally having only Graves speak was too much, though, leading to a few charged exchanges with audience members.
To a question about the travel ban, which has failed so far to pass the muster of the courts, Graves said he disagrees with an outright ban but said the Obama administration chose the seven countries and that more needs to be done to make sure terrorists from those countries don’t cross our borders.
“Do I support a ban, do I support increased vetting so that the people who come here don’t affect our security? Absolutely,” Graves said.
“We’re talking about people fleeing a disaster,” shouted audience member Gray Whitsett, of Baton Rouge, referring to the ongoing violence in Syria.
Graves walked over to Whitsett and returned fire.
“We have accepted more immigrants into this country than any other country,” the congressman said.
Graves had a lot of supporters in the audience or more than 100 people, who spilled out of the meeting room.
In introducing Graves, Central Mayor Jr. Shelton said he didn’t know Graves before he became mayor in 2014, but is now a fan.
“I will tell you, I never want to lose Garrett Graves,” Shelton said.
FEMA representatives were on hand to help audience members with concerns about the August floods, which devastated Central.
Graves gave a lengthy update on what he’s done to try to jump-start the stalled Comite River diversion project, which experts say would have provided a modest amount of flood relief to certain areas. He expressed frustration with the slow pace and money spent so far on the project.
“Our staff calculated there’s been $80 million spent and only $32 million to show for it,” Graves said. “Where in the world did that other $50 million go?”
Graves also expressed concerns about whether Louisiana is maximizing how much flood relief money it can get. He noted the wide array of volunteer work done after the flood that he’s worried would not be counted to help meet the state’s 10 percent required match, which is critical given Louisiana’s fiscal problems.
“If we don’t capture these hours, we’re going to pay the cash,” he said.
Divided opinions about Trump, however, provided Thursday’s fireworks.
Fielding questions, Graves said he didn’t see the point of asking for Trump’s tax returns, said he has criticized Trump when warranted including his comments about women, said he would support going after Trump if he saw clear evidence of wrongdoing connected to Russia.
Graves said he’s been independent since joining Congress in 2014, bucking Republican Party leadership on several occasions when he thought it was in the best interest of Louisiana.
“This is what I do, I work for you,” he said.
Graves also said Trump is doing what he said he’d do.
“America said they did not want a politician and and he’s doing and saying unusual things, but that is what the electorate wanted,” Graves said.
He also was critical of those now questioning Trump who were OK with controversies during the Obama administration, noting two that dogged Hillary Clinton.
“Did you similarly ask for an investigation of a private email server that potentially put our national security at risk?” Graves asked one questioner. “Did you support an investigation into Benghazi.”