Homelessness, the armed forces and drug policy were some of the items discussed at a town hall meeting Tuesday with Jimmy Panetta, the Democratic representative for the 20th congressional district.
Panetta was introduced to the packed room at the county administration building by Jaime De La Cruz, chairman of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors.
“Jimmy Panetta is a gentleman and a personal friend of mine,” said De La Cruz. “When he was out there campaigning, he was actually walking door-to-door. He came up to me and asked me for my support. And the gentleman has not changed since the day we shook on the gentleman’s agreement. Thank you Jimmy for coming to San Benito County.”
The town hall was moderated by Kristina Chavez-Wyatt, executive director of the San Benito County Business Council.
Questions were limited to two minutes.
The junior congressman looked engaged and confident as he fielded questions on topics ranging from immigration, affordable housing and the homeless population to climate change and cannabis.
Resident James Parker told Panetta his son recently joined the army and would likely be deployed next year.
“The question I have as a parent and with you being on the Armed Services Committee,” began Parker. “How do we know he’s got the resources he needs and that he’s going to be okay?”
The day before the Hollister town hall, President Donald Trump in a televised speech at Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Va. insinuated there would be an increase in U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan.
In addition to his position on the committee, Panetta is a veteran of the Global War on Terror and served as a naval officer in Afghanistan.
In a statement released Wednesday, Panetta said he was concerned the President’s plan lacked details.
“In his address to the American people, President Trump outlined a regional strategy to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to launch attacks against the United States and to stabilize South Asia. I am concerned that President Trump’s proposal lacks details, including on U.S. troop levels and on the vital use of diplomacy to seek stability in the region. Our brave men and women in uniform deserve a detailed strategy with realistic objectives that will bring them home, not vague promises that maintain our open-ended commitment in Afghanistan.”
To the parent of a newly minted serviceman, Panetta offered words of comfort and made a promise to fight for military resources as part of upcoming federal budget negotiations.
“Your son is going to be surrounded by a number of young men and women who are there for the same reasons your son signed up: to serve and give back,” Panetta said.
“We’re aware right now that our military is shrinking and needs to have proper investment. We have 12 working days to pass that budget. It’ll be difficult to do but with the motivation I have knowing that your son is serving, I’ll do everything I can to make sure that not only is a budget passed, but that it provides the necessary tools for your son to be safe and help do his job in protecting us.”
When asked about homelessness, Panetta said he believed that it wasn’t just a local or state issue but a federal issue as well. At last count in January, there were 527 homeless people in San Benito County.
“I do believe there needs to be grants given to local organizations in order to help them provide necessary services,” he said. “Obviously in this delicate and difficult time of proposed spending cuts, those types of services are on the chopping block. But it’s up to us to hear from you so we can continue to fight for those types of grants when they come down to this level.”
Resident Elia Salinas asked how Panetta, a member of the Cannabis Caucus, felt about cannabis being currently categorized as a Schedule I drug, the same class as heroin and ecstasy.
Cocaine and methamphetamine are considered by the federal government as less dangerous, Schedule II drugs.
“I believe that congress should take the initiative, but I do not see that happening in the 115th Congress right now,” he said.
After the town hall, Panetta spoke to the Free Lance about the importance of speaking directly to constituents in open forums during these tense political times.
Earlier in the night, as Panetta spoke to his constituents in Hollister, over in Arizona, President Trump held a campaign-style rally before his diehard supporters in Phoenix, while outside thousands of people protested. After the rally police used pepper spray to disperse the crowds.
This summer, Republicans on Capitol Hill cancelled similar town hall appearances in response to protests from constituents angry over their attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Panetta said he embraced the open forum and town halls are one of the ways he gets important information from his constituents.
“It’s very important to hear from them,” said Panetta. “If they’re willing to stand up in front of people and address their congress member, then I damn well better be able to listen to them and take their interests back to Washington D.C.”
He said his office is always open to his constituents.
“You can come to my office if you have issues, especially when dealing with the federal government,” Panetta said. “If something comes up please know I’m there and my staff is there. I’ve tried my best to make sure that we’re responsive to people’s needs as best as we can. If we can’t help we’ll hopefully find other people that can.”