Updated July 19, 10:15 am
Health care, student loan debt, environmental issues, and civility dominated Saturday’s question and answer session with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
With the American flag and state flag as a backdrop and spotlights aimed at the stage, Sen. Warren appeared before a packed house in the Performing Arts Center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. By 9 am there was already a line from the school doors nearly all the way to Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road before the doors opened at 9:30 am.
There were 1,000 people inside, 150 listening in the lobby, and another 150 people who couldn’t get in got a private audience with Sen. Warren before she came into the school, state Sen. Julian Cyr said in introducing Sen. Warren: “I feel so fortunate and blessed we have someone so interested in talking to people who couldn’t get in the door.”
Saturday’s event was organized by the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation. After answering questions for more than an hour, she stayed on the stage posing for photographs for about an hour.
An energized Warren moved about the stage, at one point raising her arms like a triumphant boxer when she talked about how Democratic senators were able to rally against massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, arts and humanities.
“This is good stuff,” she said to wild applause from the obviously partisan crowd.
The session hit its high point when Sen. Warren talked about being censured by the Senate for reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The mention of “nevertheless she persisted” brought people to their feet in a rousing standing ovation.
“This wasn’t about me,” she said. “This was about tens of millions of women being sick and tired of being told to sit down and be quiet.”
It also got emotional when a man named Bill hoisted his daughter, Lucy, up from her wheelchair, and railed against President Trump making fun of a reporter with special needs. “I’m offended when people won’t apologize. He’s the president,” as the crowd stood up in appreciation of his raw emotion.
During her public comments, Sen. Warren described President Trump as “hateful,” and afterwards talking to reporters she would not back off her comments.
“I think he’s behaved in a hateful way . . . When he makes fun of someone who has palsy . . . and then when it’s pointed out, he won’t apologize, that’s hateful.”
On a topic that didn’t come up during the session, but is a key issue on the Island, Sen. Warren said her office is working hard on immigration issues. She offered this hope to the restaurants, inns and other businesses that are struggling because of the lack of workers on H-2B visas: “I understand that Washington is broken and they are paying the price. We’re doing everything we can to work with both the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department to try and get some relief, not next year or the year after that, but to get them some relief now.”
Sen. Warren was energetic, engaging and, at times, funny. She got laughs when she talked about President Donald Trump’s “crazy 3 am tweets,” but she also got serious in asking the crowd to stay engaged and “join the fight.”
“We can’t shoot at everything that moves,” Sen. Warren said.
When a young student named Simon asked about what could be done about student loan debt, she had few immediate answers, talked about how the federal government makes money off the interest paid on loans, and talked about her own journey that included the use of an inexpensive commuter school. She pointed out that her student loan bill can’t get to the floor because of the Republican-dominated Senate.
“We need someone in the White House who doesn’t look out and see people looking for education as another opportunity for a scam,” she said, an obvious dig at Trump University.
Despite the questions about health care, student debt, environmental issues, Sen. Warren attempted to offer hope, particularly about women’s issues. She applauded the Women’s March in Washington and other cities across the country.
“We’re in this moment in history where democracy is changing,” she said. While all women’s issues are important, health care and the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood has to be the priority at the moment, Sen. Warren said. “Those are the places we have to keep the focus right now.”
On her Island visit: “Democracy is strong. This is what it’s going to take. I did this town hall, and I’m doing town halls all around the state, to keep people in the fight. We don’t have fights in Washington … It’s going to take grassroots energy to take this country back from Republicans.”
On healthcare: “What we have right now is a bunch of Republicans who are trying to pass a tax-cut bill, and they’re calling it a healthcare bill.
On the budget: “People don’t want a Republican budget that cuts aid to colleges and our kids. People aren’t looking for this, and the Republicans are determined to drive forward an extremist agenda that their donors are behind 100 percent.”
On Trump: “I think he’s behaved in a hateful way … When he makes fun of someone who has palsy because it suits him, and then when it’s pointed out and he won’t apologize — that’s hateful.”
On immigration: “Talk about an area of frustration. Back in 2013, Democrats and Republicans sat down together and actually worked out a comprehensive immigration reform package. It wasn’t ideal, I didn’t love it, other people didn’t love it, but it took care of business interests, those who rely on temporary workers, it knitted together immigrant groups … It was a coming together and making compromises. Then at the last minute, Republicans backed out, and now we can’t even get that conversation going in Washington.”
Editor’s note: “Quick hits” quotes were added.