Dennis Michael Collins didn’t support Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez’s bid for Congress. He voted for her opponent. But as he left her town hall Wednesday night, he said he is keeping an open mind.
“I’m just glad that I was able to be here,” said Collins, chair of the Skamania County Republican Party. “I saw that probably one-third of the crowd I recognized as Republican. And two-thirds as Democrat. I think that it’s good that we’re all in the same building and we all got along.”
The congresswoman held her first town hall Wednesday night and marked her first public return to Washington state’s southwestern district since she won the seat in a surprise upset in November.
The 34-year-old auto shop owner campaigned as a political moderate. Now elected, those like Collins said they wanted to see how Gluesenkamp Perez planned on legislating down the middle.
Collins said he needed time to form his opinion about how the town hall went and plans to discuss more with the local party.
“I’m going to think about what was said before I come up with an opinion. And I’m going to talk with my constituents and find out how we can build bipartisan support on the things we agree upon,” he said.
Dozens filled a cavernous exhibit hall at the Skamania County Fairgrounds. For more than an hour, they explored Gluesenkamp Perez’s policy views and asked for some insight into the new session’s chaotic start in Washington D.C.
Attendees asked about her thoughts on issues ranging from homelessness to wind-powered energy to abortion. District residents submitted their questions in writing, which a moderator seated on a dais read aloud.
“Will you cross the aisle for reasonable GOP bills?” one question asked. Gluesenkamp Perez responded yes. She noted she supported a House resolution that condemned vandalism against churches and “pro-life facilities” in the wake of the last year’s overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Gluesenkamp Perez said she “got a lot of headshaking” from other Democrats for supporting the resolution. “But I thought of you all,” she said to the crowd. She followed up that political disagreements shouldn’t lead people to damage property, which the crowd applauded.
The congresswoman has supported access to abortion, as well as guns. She has pitched herself as a champion of the middle class, especially for tradespeople like mechanics, carpenters and plumbers.
Economic policy became a theme of many questions. On a question about oil production, the congresswoman contended the country needs to become less reliant on foreign producers for its energy. She said her district is uniquely positioned to benefit from investments in hydro, wind and solar energy.
When asked how she would protect salmon and steelhead, she countered that America should curb plastics — which often end up in the water and don’t biodegrade — and revive cardboard and paper. Forest products had, until recently, been a dominant industry in the region.
“We have the technology to open these mills,” she said.
The congresswoman also talked about her first days in the halls at the U.S. House of Representatives. She said her experience coming face-to-face with national politicians “humanized” them but also revealed some of Congress’ uglier sides.
“When the camera goes away, you find people have much more nuanced opinions than they let on,” she said. “It’s both worse and better than you can imagine.”
The discussion gravitated to hyperlocal issues, too. Some asked the congresswoman about road safety in Skamania County. Some wanted to know her thoughts on the real estate pressures of living in the Columbia River Gorge, where land can be heavily protected.
Martin Hecht, whose company provides guided tours in the gorge, said he preferred hearing her thoughts on those local topics.
“She seemed in touch with the people she’s representing,” said Hecht, who supported her in the election. “I like that she represents rural communities — which, we certainly are one.”
Collins, the Skamania County GOP chair, said he also preferred discussing local issues and felt that sentiment was shared by most of the people filling the exhibit hall.
“You hear so much in the media that people don’t get along. It’s kind of nice when rural people do get along on both sides of the aisle,” he said.