TAZEWELL, Va. — During a town hall meeting in Tazewell Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told those in attendance at the American Legion Building he was going to talk about all the good things that are happening in Washington.
Warner then stood still and said nothing.
“It’s been a challenging time,” he said of the stagnation in the nation’s Capital. “I come here to Tazewell and to Southwest Virginia and see things getting done with hard work and determination … (the attitude is) we are going to redefine our community and we are going to bring it back. I will go back rejuvenated, reinvigorated.”
Warner is on a tour of Southwest Virginia and, besides the town hall meeting, he visited several businesses on Main Street in Tazewell with town officials who pointed out the growth the town is seeing in new businesses and community projects.
“I have been here many times over the years when and before I was governor,” he said. “To see what is happening in this town, you have to be very, very proud.”
Warner said the progress is a far cry from what is happening in Washington and he touched on several topics that have been front and center.
“The last seven or eight months in Washington have been some of the strangest times since I have been in politics,” he said. “You really can’t make this stuff up.”
Warner said since he is vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he has been on national TV a lot discussing the Russian probe, explaining that it is not an attempt to relitigate the election or an attempt to “try to embarrass anybody.”
Warner said it’s a matter of trying to find out what happened during the 2016 election as far as Russia’s involvement was concerned as well as any work that was done with Russians by a member of Pres. Trump’s team.
Warner said fellow senators as well as the intelligence community acknowledge the Russians did hack into both political party’s data bases and they also created fake news on the Internet, but the President still refers to it as a “witch hunt” and “fake news.”
“I wish Trump would recognize what they did,” he said. “He hasn’t fully acknowledged the Russians did it, and we don’t have a plan to prevent it from happening in the future.”
But, he added, they used only the information collected from the Democrats, and only part of that.
“They only released about 5 to 10 percent of what they stole,” he said. “They have a lot of stuff on people in both political parties, and that is an ongoing threat.”
Warner said the Russians set up fake Facebook and Twitter accounts in certain states as well as attempted to hack into some states’ election system.
“We will never know if it affected the election or not,” he said, adding that many people tend to believe what they read on the Internet without finding out if it’s true.
The investigation into possible collusion between the Russians and those associated with Trump is ongoing, he added, and he will be the first to step up and acknowledge it if no collusion is found.
That hacking should be a precaution to everyone, he said, because it is indicative of another kind of warfare (cyber). “We need the military, but we need to be prepared for the 21st Century. It’s not tanks, planes and rockets, but cyber security.”
The nation’s power system and food supply were two of the things that could be vulnerable to a cyber attack. “We need to think about that as we go forward.”
Obamacare was another issue Warner addressed, saying the plan has “good things and bad things,” but the Republicans kept saying they were going to repeal and replace, then had no viable plan to do so.
“They had no plan,” he said. “I have never seen anything as crazy as what happened a couple of weeks ago … they wanted to take it away for 16 million and collapse the insurance market. Then they said, ‘We will pass it, but promise it will never become law.’ That’s crazy.”
Warner praised GOP senators John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska for opposing it.
The problems with Obamacare need to be fixed, like the insurance markets and rising costs, he said, but people should continue to have coverage, not be dropped.
Warner said he wants to see cheaper plans on the market, the creation of reinsurance pools, putting the chronically sick in separate pools to keep others’ rates down, and allowing insurance markets to cross state lines.
“Let’s keep what is good and fix what is broken,” he said. “This is the greatest country in the world and people should have access to affordable health care.”
On budget items, Warner said three areas are being neglected that are smart long-term investments: education, infrastructure and medical research.
“Those are the places we are cutting,” he said. “That part of the budget is slimmer today (in percentage of the total budget) than it was during Eisenhower (President Dwight Eisenhower served from 1953 through 1961).”
On the ongoing North Korea problem, Warner said “the last three presidents” have dropped the ball by not taking the country’s efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal seriously enough.
“I worry about it,” he said, adding that it is a situation that needs to be constantly monitored.
However, he said he does not support Trump’s provocative rhetoric related to the problem.
Warner also addressed some economic issues related to the region brought up by some in the audience.
One was cellphone service and broadband access.
“We made a mistake in the 1990s,” he said, referring to the beginning of the proliferation of these services across the country.
Warner, a Harvard Law School graduate who was once a telecommunications company owner, said these services should have been treated like the postal service and telephone systems were, mandating access in rural areas.
“But we didn’t do that,” he said. “It should have been required. We should have put a lot more into rural broadband. The country should have invested more.”
That’s because, he said, these services are now an essential part of business and access is necessary for economic development. Many companies that are now located in congested and expensive cities could relocate if the infrastructure to do business was in place.
The information age should have brought more opportunities to less populated places, he said. “You should not have to leave Tazewell to find world class jobs. You can build it (a company relying on technology) anywhere. We have done a pretty crummy job in honoring that commitment to rural America.”
But Warner also cautioned that three companies, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now “have more power than any company in American history. In this new world … they have all this data about all of us. They have the gold already and the more they mine it the more powerful they become.”
As far as bringing coal jobs back to boost the economy in the region, Warner said coal will continue to “play a role” but that Trump was “overly optimistic” when he pledged on the campaign trail to put all the miners back to work in the industry.
“Natural gas changed the energy economy,” he said, adding that renewable energy resources like solar are becoming more economically viable.
One question related to the continued funding of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which helps with economic development in rural areas.
“I get frustrated with the President,” he said. “He says he wants to help Appalachia then he wants to cut the ARC.”
Warner said Southwest Virginia as well all rural areas have been overlooked over the years.
“Neither political party has paid much attention to rural America for some time,” he said.
The issue of the viability of some entitlement programs was also addressed.
“We have to be honest,” he said. “Social Security and Medicare … may not be here for our kids. We are living longer and not as many people are paying into it.”
Warner said that at one time there were 16 workers for one retiree on Social Security. “It’s now three to one.”
Raising the cap on Social Security wages that are taxable would help, he said, as well as extending the retirement date another year.
Warner was asked to defend his vote to confirm Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former Exxon executive.
“I have to start with the premise that elections have consequences,” he said. “He (Trump) won and you have to give him the benefit of the doubt that comes with that position, that he or she should be able to put their people in place.”
Warner said he didn’t vote to confirm all of Trump’s appointees, but he had known Tillerson in the business world.
“I felt that he was somebody who has been successful enough and knew enough about the world that he would take the job because he wanted to serve the country and not promote Trump’s’ agenda,” he said.”I got a lot of grief on that vote.”
Warner did not have anything positive to say about Trump.
“He can’t give a speech to the Boy Scouts without getting himself in trouble,” he said. “Then he fibs about the call (from head of the Boy Scouts). That is not how a president should act.”
Although Warner said he receive a lot more positive from his visit than he gave, and there is “not enough optimism coming out of Washington,” he urged people not to give up.
“Don’t lose faith,” he said. “We live in the greatest country in the world … There is something that is a secret sauce in our country. We just can’t lose that.”
Warner said the attitude of “we can fix it” needs to return to the federal government as it has to local government, and he said everyone should remain involved at all levels.
He also told the audience to vote for “who is good,” regardless of the party affiliation.
“I will take your message back and try to kick some tail in D.C.,” he said.
Warner served as Virginia’s’ governor from 2002 to 2006 and was elected to the Senate in 2009, then reelected in 2014. He delivered the keynote speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com