Congressman Keating got an earfull on Martha’s Vineyard Monday

Congressman Bill Keating spoke to Islanders Monday about life in Washington at the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Congressman Bill Keating of the newly created 9th District, which includes the Cape and Islands, some of the South Shore and now New Bedford and Fall River, showed the flag during a whirlwind visit to Martha’s Vineyard Monday. His visit was billed as an opportunity to hear what Islanders think, and there was no shortage of people who had something to say along the congressman’s route, which included several stops and impromptu discussions.

The day began with a morning conversation on the Steamship ferry with constituents, it included stops at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and The Times office, and ended with a well-attended town hall style meeting at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

State Senator Dan Wolf and Representative Tim Madden joined Mr. Keating and about 150 Islanders at the theater. Many of the theatergoers had questions, and some of them longish statements with a question tacked on at the end. The opportunity was extended by lottery.

Over the course of about 90 minutes, Congressman Keating displayed the Irish charm and nimbleness of a veteran Massachusetts Democratic politician (he is a former state rep and senator) and the edge of a former district attorney (12 years as Norfolk DA). The latter was shown in response to the only hardball tossed, an accusation that his vote in favor of a recent defense bill supported a measure that violated the Constitution. For the most part, it was a friendly crowd.

Mr. Keating began the evening describing his family’s immigrant roots, his by-the-bootstraps rise — put himself through Boston College working at the post office — and his Vineyard connection.

“I’m not new coming to the Vineyard,” he said. “I owned a home here for ten years.”

He thanked his former Edgartown neighbor, Ben Hall, owner of the Capawock, for making the theater available.

The theme he repeated throughout his remarks was the need to give young people the opportunities that had underpinned the American dream and to bolster small business.

He described the ongoing debate in Washington. “What’s happening now and what’s being debated and what’s being decided and ultimately will be decided by the American public,” Mr. Keating said, “is whether or not the foundation of the American dream itself is going to stay as it has been throughout our modern history.”

Mr. Keating said government was not working for the people, but he said he was hopeful. “We have the opportunity to do better, and we will,” he said.

In the only formal portion of the event, Mr. Keating officially recognized two high school students he has nominated to U.S. military academies, Connor Smith of Edgartown (West Point) and Riley Donegan of Vineyard Haven (Naval Academy).

Peter Cabana of Vineyard Haven won the chance to ask the first question. Mr. Cabana, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, asked Mr. Wolf and Mr. Madden for an update on his efforts to place solar arrays on airport property and in State Forest fire lanes.

Mr. Wolf said state officials remained open to the possibility.

Peter Goodale, whose family owns Goodale Construction Company, the Island’s only supplier of sand, concrete, and asphalt, told Mr. Keating that federal environmental regulations geared to larger operations had forced his family to replace equipment he bought in 2007 with a new $25,000 piece of equipment to remove an estimated 23 pounds of nitrous oxide his operation emits. The Vineyard as a whole emits an estimated 1,300 tons. “What can we do to eliminate the onerous standards that we have,” he asked, “so that small business can operate without these ridiculous expenses.”

Mr. Keating said he is on the small business committee. “When we are having debates generally about regulations, we are often dealing with the extremes and not more commonsense approaches in the middle,” he said and he offered a sympathetic ear and some examples of changes he had supported but no specifics for Mr. Goodale.

Senator Wolf, head of Cape Air, added his own view, noting his small business experience and his observations since entering government: “This system is rigged to favor large corporations at the expense of small businesses,” he said. “Unless we have people in government who are capable of understanding that large corporations are exploiting communities and making it more difficult for small business and entrepreneurs to survive, succeed and grow, then we are going to see more and more of what you are experiencing.”

Mr. Wolf said the question is how to use tax policy to “cross-subsidize small businesses with bigger business success.”

Mr. Goodale wanted no part of that. “I am not looking to get larger businesses taxed more to subsidize my business,” he said. “I just want regulations reduced or made more commonsense so that we are not having ridiculous standards put on things that are absolutely minimal contributions to the problem.”

Other questions but few specific answers followed. Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian asked about help for shoring up Oak Bluffs beaches. Lynn Ditchfield asked about help for continuing education and access to higher education and the Dream Act to give illegal immigrants access to higher education.

Mr. Keating said the Dream Act would not be addressed in this session. Immigration remained a patchwork quilt badly in need of reform, he said.

Tony Nevin questioned a defense budget that continues to consume so much of the country’s resources. It was time for a sensible and non-aggressive budget, he said.

Mr. Keating agreed that it was time to cut back or we are never going to get our deficit under control. He said it was time for countries to pick up their own tab for defense.

“We are the policeman for the world,” he said. “We are funding military in countries that no longer have enemies.”

Referring to bases in European countries, Mr. Keating said, “If they want that kind of defense they can pay for it themselves, but we cannot afford to be everyone’s protector from a military standpoint.”

He said the country just put more troops in Australia. “What are we doing putting troops in Australia for?” he asked.

The subject of defense elicited the only strong comments and the only reference to the president. Brad Rothwell, 30, of Edgartown, one of the few younger faces in the audience, said President Obama recently signed a defense act that allows the U.S. military and other government agencies to legally take U.S. citizens and hold them without charge or trial, torture and assassinate citizens. He said Mr. Keating voted for the bill.

“How can you go against the Constitution like that?” he asked. Mr. Rothwell added, “I feel like you committed treason.”

Mr. Keating bristled at the characterization. He said Mr. Rothwell had his facts wrong. He said he was well familiar with the Constitution, a document that guided daily decisions during a 12-year career as district attorney. “Please read the bill and you will feel better about that,” he said.

Mr. Rothwell persisted. “How is it okay to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens,” he asked, “without a trial?”

“What you described is not true,” Mr. Keating said. He asked Mr. Rothwell to speak to a member of his staff who would provide him with the facts.