In more ways than one, Congressman Jimmy Panetta’s first town hall meeting in Hollister was just like coming home. The overflowing Board of Supervisors’ chambers was friendly and the questions were non-confrontational when compared to the receptions some Republicans have received around the country. Those in the room may not have all been Democrats, but Panetta was a master at playing the room and generating positive feelings among his constituents.
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz set the tone when he introduced Panetta as a gentleman and a personal friend. Then moderator Kristina Chavez Wyatt, executive director of the San Benito County Business Council, instructed everyone that comments and questions were limited to two minutes and asked the audience, “to please use your utmost respect and decorum because we’re a friendly community.”
Panetta was at ease with the crowd as he told them how he came to Hollister as a youngster and later competed against it in high school sports playing for Carmel High School. Over the next hour and a half, he talked about a number of issues and answered questions. He described his experience as a freshman congressman as “kind of nutty,” but he had the sense he was not alone in that feeling. He said politicians of every stripe called what is happening in the nation’s capital as “unprecedented” and that they don’t have any idea how to handle the situation, eluding to President Trump.
An oft-repeated comment was, “If leadership is not coming from the top, it should come from the bottom, with both parties working together.”
Panetta told the audience that as a former prosecutor, he was accustomed to gathering evidence and that is what he was doing as he listened to them, and he would take their evidence back to Washington, D.C. as he continues to work on the Agriculture Committee and the Armed Services Committee, and in serving the 20th District.
As a local organic farmer, it was only natural for Grant Brians to open his comments by stating that while everyone in the community needed representation, it was especially important to look after the welfare of farmworkers. Then he shifted to decidedly non-farming topics: prison sentencing reform and crime recidivism prevention. He said mental health and economic issues often play a role in people’s criminal behavior.
Panetta agreed that sentencing reform is of major importance. He said as a prosecutor on the “gang team,” he often dealt with hardened criminals who committed horrific crimes. He said his job was to prove the case against them and then make sure they took responsibility for their crimes. But when he moved over to general felonies, he often saw that people being prosecuted had mental health issues and these low-level felons were caught up in a revolving door amounting to catch and release. The Congressman said because of laws on the books the criminal justice system cannot provide mental health services.
“Where does it fall?” he said. “It falls on the county and the city. I think that’s part of the reason you’re seeing an uptick in homelessness in certain areas. We have to get back to providing those types of services either before they get into custody or definitely post-release custody.”
Panetta said while states are making good progress the federal government needs to step up and that he was glad that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obama Care covered mental health care.
“I’ll continue to fight for that and I continue to fight against the repeal of the ACA,” he said. “I also believe the federal government needs to provide more funding for research, services and more types of grants that our local agencies can have funding to treat people in that situation.”
Panetta said more than once that he hopes to establish relationships across the aisle during his first term and that it takes time to do so, a subtle hint that he is hoping for more than two years in Congress.
Local resident Linda George said she thinks the housing crisis is statewide and wondered how Panetta might be able influence state representatives to do something about local roads to improve commuting and travel times in case of emergencies. She also asked about his thoughts on homelessness.
In addressing the homeless situation, Panetta said there needs to be more federal grants to local organizations to help them provides services. He said that during a time of proposed spending cuts, these services are on the chopping block. Regarding housing, he said there needs to be more organizations such as the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership Housing Trust that receives money from organizations and government that developers can take from in order to build low-income and mixed-use housing. He said San Benito County developers qualify for funding from the trust.
When reminded that one of the primary causes for flooding in the Lovers Lane area in January was because California Fish & Wildlife would not permit the Pacheco Creek to be cleared out, Panetta said he was present shortly after the flooding and was able to report to FEMA to assure funding would be coming to the county. He said when the same problem involved the Salinas River, it took years of piecemeal work among numerous organizations and Fish & Wildlife to clear it. He said that is not an ideal solution, but probably the best one available under the strict environmental regulations that prevent individual landowners from taking action on their own to clear the creek.
When James Parker expressed concern that his son who had just completed military basic training might be deployed soon, he asked Panetta for assurance that the country has the resources to protect his son. As a former naval officer who saw action in Afghanistan, Panetta tried to assure Parker by telling him that his son will be surrounded by other soldiers who are there to serve and give back. Panetta also told about serving with a Navy SEAL who died in combat and whose tombstone had inscribed on it, “If not me, then who?”
“I have confidence that there are young men out there like your son who took that step forward to serve as part of that generation since 2001 that ran forward,” Panetta said. “Less than 1 percent serve. Many of us don’t know people who have served because it’s shrinking. That’s why you should be so proud of not just your son, but the fact he will be surround by young men and women with that attitude.”
Perhaps in a rare alignment with President Donald Trump’s thinking, Panetta said the military needs more funding. He said the government needs to stop coming up with resolutions of the budget in order to pass it so there can be more investment into the military.
“That budget is coming up in September, and we have 12 working days to pass it,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to do it, but with the motivation I have knowing your son is serving, I’ll do everything I can to make sure the budget not only passes, but it provides the necessary tools for you son to be safe and do his job in protecting us.”
Panetta was told that because of climate change and Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, that many youth have become cynical, believing that people who are making such decisions will not be alive when the damaging effects begin and their generation will be the ones who have to deal with it. He was asked what he intends to do about climate change. Panetta said he believes climate change is real and preventive measures need to be taken.
“This administration stepped back from that treaty and it was the wrong decision for a number of reasons,” Panetta said. “It hurts the credibility of the United States when you enter into an agreement and then pull out. Leadership on climate change is not going to come from the top during this administration. It’s going to come from the bottom up.”
Then he told of young Congress members from both parties who have joined together in the Climate Solutions Caucus. He said that to be a member of the caucus, a person can only join if they bring along another member of the opposite party. He related that as a Democrat it wasn’t easy taking a Republican to join him. He was not successful in convincing a Florida congressman to come along. Then he met Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and Republican from Norfolk, Virginia, who agreed to join.
“We’re talking about these issues,” Panetta said. “I’m not saying anything grand is going to come out of this, but the fact that both sides of mostly young members are at the table talking about climate change and possible solutions makes me proud.”
The wife of a veteran who is having health issues challenged the audience to try to figure out how to use the Veterans’ Administration’s website. She said she was computer savvy, but found it almost impossible navigating the site. She said the V.A. needs doctors with military experience who can relate to PTSD, Agent Orange and other issues for today’s veterans. Panetta said that if anyone has an issue with the V.A. to contact his office. He added that, as a veteran, he appreciates the Central Coast being full of people who give back to those who served in the military. He said that in Washington both parties work together on veterans’ issues and have passed legislation to give veterans a choice of doctors outside the V.A., expedited appeals, V.A. employees can now be fired, and most recently, they passed the G.I. Forever bill which extends G.I. Bill benefits for life.
Panetta concluded by announcing that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is tentatively scheduled in September to tour local farms on the Central Coast.
“This is what’s needed,” he said. “They’re going to have the evidence to go back there to help the Central Coast of California.”