Neither rain nor a 10 a.m. Wednesday start time appeared to deter area residents from turning out for Rep. Patrick McHenry’s annual town hall meeting in Buncombe County on Aug. 1. The Riceville Community Center in northeast Asheville was packed to its 143-person capacity, with many attendees parking in the grass along Riceville Road and dozens turned away due to fire code restrictions.
Although Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher attempted to set ground rules of civil engagement as he introduced his fellow Republican, crowd members did not shy away from vociferous dissent with McHenry’s positions. Many accused the representative, in his House leadership role as chief deputy majority whip, of giving a free pass to President Donald Trump for behavior they believe to be unethical.
“The president speaks in ways that demean groups of people, that indicate it’s all right to tear families apart and abuse children,” said Asheville resident Cathy Scott, garnering sustained applause from the audience. “I believe that it’s the responsibility of public officials like yourself to work to heal the trauma that our president is creating by challenging him.”
McHenry responded by saying he’s chosen to focus on achieving legislative goals, not sharing his opinions on Trump’s communication style. “I didn’t think it was important for me to be a commentator on every tweet or every direction on a daily basis,” he said. “All I can do is control my actions and my words and how I engage.”
That answer failed to satisfy the crowd, as did McHenry’s response to a critique of Trump’s border policy. After another attendee compared detention facilities for children separated from their families during immigration proceedings to “concentration camps” in Nazi Germany, McHenry interjected that such rhetoric was “way outsized for what we’re experiencing right now” — only to be interrupted in turn by a general outburst from the audience.
Once the noise died down, McHenry said that he’s called for an end to the family separation policy, as well as a broader conversation about the root causes of immigration. Through changes to development aid in Central American countries, he hopes the U.S. can encourage growth and create economies that meet the region’s needs.
McHenry did reach some common ground with his constituents over renewable energy. He expressed pride in North Carolina for having the country’s second-largest solar electric capacity and called for a “fundamental shift in energy development and deployment.” At the national level, McHenry said he would push for technology-agnostic incentives to spur innovation and reduce the cost of energy alternatives.
However, McHenry was more hesitant to embrace the idea of a carbon tax, as advocated by a number of attendees. Such a “fundamental change” in how taxation occurs, he said, would require significant study to determine its effects on the economy.
In the end, McHenry said, his approach to tackling climate change would be determined by the data. “I’m an outlier, I’ll be honest with you, in my party, but I think you have to start having that conversation in order to build some understanding,” he explained. “Data’s not there to hurt your feelings.”