BARRINGTON – Americans must continue to be vocal and work together to turn back the triple threat of Russian interference, gun violence and a president who is “impulsive, divisive and frequently uninformed,” U.S. Sen. Jack Reed told an overflow crowd of more than 200 people who gathered in the council chamber at Barrington Town Hall on March 4.
This assessment was shared by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline at the community forum, hosted by Temple Habonim, that was originally scheduled to be held at the temple.
“Welcome to Temple Habonim,” Rabbi Andrew Klein said in opening the program, drawing a laugh.
The event was moved to Barrington Town Hall because the temple was still waiting for electricity to be restored after the nor’easter that swept across the Northeast on March 1-2, leaving many in the dark, including many in the audience.
“This is a challenging time for our nation … when cooperation and compromise seem nonexistent,” Klein continued before introducing the lawmakers, who got a big hand.
In brief opening statements, all three Democrats made the same point: “If our democracy is to be saved, it’s because of the active participation of people across this nation,” as Cicilline put it.
Cicilline said one of the first acts of Republicans under the Trump administration was to try to shut down the House Ethics Office. It was only the loud protests of Americans that caused the administration to reverse itself, he said.
“Frankly, it should not be this hard, but that’s where we are at this moment in time,” he said. “Stay engaged — the very future of our country depends on it.”
Reed said, “Ultimately our strength is we do come together.”
Whitehouse said that in both Washington and Rhode Island, he hears from people who are very interested and concerned about what is happening in the government, from denying climate change to labeling the work of the intelligence and justice communities “a witch hunt.” The good news, Whitehouse said, is that “we’re holding our own in Congress” and government agencies are still making good decisions.
“Over and over, you see the system that our founding fathers set up” working to temper the current administration, he said.
Audience members questioned the lawmakers on everything from the Dreamers to student loans, the Electoral College, violence in Syria and local power plant plans, but it was a statement – not a question – that drew the biggest response.
“I’m pleading with you, take on the NRA,” said the Rev. Ralph Mero, of Providence. “You’ve got to find a way to stop the possession of instruments of war in the hands of men who cannot control their actions. You’ve got to do this.”
The audience rose to their feet as they applauded Mero’s comments.
Reed said, “Amen.”
Cicilline, who recently introduced a bill to ban assault weapons, thanked the group Moms Demand Action for their fight against such weapons. But, he said, “The only way we’re going to change the gun laws in this country is to change the Congress.”
Key to that, the lawmakers said, is for Democrats to win the midterm elections in November.
Asked about their stance on federal bills that could impose fines and prison time for boycotting Israel, Cicilline stated his strong opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. All three lawmakers said, however, that the current bills need to be improved before coming to a vote.
“We need dialogue,” Reed said. “We should be looking for common ground, not pointing fingers, which I think this bill does.”
On Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in U.S. elections, Whitehouse said, “We have to make the message very clear that there will be tremendous political consequences” if President Donald Trump fires Mueller. He added that it must be a bipartisan message.
“When a president tries to obstruct justice, he is accountable,” Whitehouse said.
The lawmakers said the goal of the Russian interference is voter suppression, and the best defense against that is voting.
“We have to commit ourselves to vote. That’s what being an American is,” Reed said. “Get everyone you know out to vote. If we do that, it will be the American people guiding this country.”
CYNTHIA BENJAMIN is an editor and writer. She is a member of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Woonsocket.