Congressman William “Bill” Keating invited Islanders to stop by Waterside Market on Main Street in Vineyard Haven Thursday for a chat. His constituents happily took him up on the invitation.
Mr. Keating held court in the middle of the busy dining room where he heard a wide range of views on a variety of topics from citizens and town officials. The subjects included health care, funding for the arts, climate change, the state of Congress, Tea Party obstructionists, and CIA conspiracies.
Wearing a suit and tie and well-shined shoes — an immediate giveaway in a crowd of Vineyarders — attentive, buoyant and personable no matter the topic, Mr. Keating told The Times that he enjoys one-on-one visits more than larger gatherings. “It’s informal and I get a sense of what people are thinking,” he said. “I’m refreshed by it.”
Speaking with one constituent about congressional inaction and the challenge Speaker of the House John Boehner faces in the House, Mr. Keating lay the blame on the Tea Party. “The Speaker is the captain of a mutinous ship,” he said.
The room was not entirely full of Democrats. Tom Flynn, a Republican, drove from Edgartown to tell Mr. Keating he appreciated that the Congressman took time to visit without staging a fundraiser. Mr. Flynn was philosophical about the blame game. “Of course, he did [blame the Republicans], I’d blame everything on the Democrats.”
Following the morning discussion, Mr. Keating and a small entourage that included state Representative Tim Madden, Oak Bluffs town administrator Bob Whritenour, Oak Bluffs selectman Walter Vail, and Tisbury selectman Jeff Kristal hopped on a boat for a tour of the East Chop bluffs erosion and the storm-damaged Oak Bluffs coastline.
Oak Bluffs has submitted an application for nearly $15 million in federal aid for storm repairs to address damage and erosion along East Chop Drive, East Chop’s coastal bank, and sea walls bordering town beaches.
In the afternoon, Mr. Keating visited the Gay Head Lighthouse. The town of Aquinnah has launched an effort to preserve the Gay Head Light, which is facing an imminent threat on the Island’s westernmost promontory due to rapid erosion.
In December, Congressman Keating joined the effort. In a letter to U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., Mr. Keating asked that the Coast Guard list the lighthouse as excess property so it could be transferred to a local entity or a group charged with saving it.
Congressman Bill Keating easily won re-election in November in the 9th District, which includes the Cape and Islands, some of the South Shore, New Bedford and Fall River, with strong support from Vineyard voters.
During the short walk from the Waterside to Owen Park to board the Tisbury patrol boat that would take him on a coastline tour, Mr. Keating discussed several topics with The Times.
Mr. Keating said he enjoys visiting the Island. “I miss it,” Mr. Keating said. “We used to spend a lot of time here when we had a house in Edgartown. We would come to check on the house in the off-season all the time in the mid 90s. Our kids would love it.”
Mr. Keating said the purpose of his trip to Aquinnah was to see the Gay Head Lighthouse for himself. “It helps us, too, when we’re trying to approach things with the state and when we’re communicating with the agencies by seeing it firsthand,” he said.
Asked if his constituents, particularly those seeking funding, overestimate his ability to help, Mr. Keating said people are reasonable in their expectations of him where money is concerned.
“You never really know, unless you try, what can be helpful,” he said. “Sometimes, you can be partially helpful. It’s good to highlight issues. But I’ve found people to be very realistic these days.”
While speaking with several people during the coffee hour, Mr. Keating repeatedly blamed Republicans for Congressional inaction. Asked if Democrats shared any blame, Mr. Keating elaborated.
“Not all the Republicans,” he said. But there had to be enough Republicans to go with the majority of the Democrats to break some of the issues.
“And we saw it on the violence against women act, we saw it with the fiscal cliff folks, where that occurred. And the Speaker put the bill on the floor and there was enough, about a third of the Republicans with a majority of Democrats, that put it together.
“So what’s frustrating is, the Tea Party influence is very real, and it’s more of an issue than people think. The public, especially from this part of the country, thinks that’s a small little group. It isn’t. And it joined up with some of the other people that are influenced directly with their elections, by the threat of a primary opponent, They’re enough to hold the Republican caucus hostage, for putting bills on the floor. And so that is a problem.”
Reminded that a Democrat, Barack Obama, is the Commander-in-Chief, Mr. Keating said the President had come in for criticism from members of his own caucus who said that he could do more.
“But this Congress, the last one and this one, clearly has been one of the worst Congresses we’ve had,” he said. “And part of this is getting through this extreme extremism.
“Now, there are people on the Democratic side, unless they get everything they want, will never vote for certain areas of compromise too. But the more immediate obstacle we have is there’s a sentiment that unless a majority of the caucus, the Republican caucus, agrees with it, it can’t go on the floor.”
On the subject of Guantanamo and President Barack Obama’s long-stalled promise to close it, the former prosecutor said the facility is costly and the images of prisoners detained for more than a decade is harmful to the national interest.
“It’s causing unrest, too,” he said. “It’s fueling some extremists, that image, too. So we should, for monetary reasons and because it’s unnecessary.”
Mr. Keating said it was time for some decisions on the fate of the prisoners held in Guantanamo.
“Some of them; some of them remain a danger. But there should be a better standard with some of them. Because what we’re finding out, and I’m doing this in my new committee with foreign affairs and the emerging threat in Europe, that image is being used around the world against us, and we’re not that kind of country.
“I think it’s time to shut it down. And for a period of time, I was told there wasn’t another alternative in place. I think there’s been enough time to do that.
“So, I think that what we’ve learned with these emerging threats in our country and greater risks, it’s very important how we’re perceived, it’s very important how we act around the world, because some of those effects come back and hit us in the homeland. And that’s not a threat; it’s just a reality we work with. And people pervert the kind of country we are. We’re proud of it, and we shouldn’t give them ammunition to do it.”