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Minnesota congressman pressed about Trump at spirited but mostly civil town hall forum

Rep. Tom Emmer answers a question at a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 in Sartell, as audience members wave signs expressing their disagreement with Emmer's answer. (Pioneer Press: David Montgomery.)

SARTELL, Minn. — At the 14 town-hall forums Rep. Tom Emmer held in the last two years, an average of 40 to 50 people showed up to get the Republican congressman's take on the issues of the day.

Emmer's first town hall of 2017 may have had more people show up in a single night.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside Sartell's City Hall for the forum in the St. Cloud area community. But only a fraction of them fit into the compact city council chambers for an hourlong question-and-answer session with Emmer.

"I apologize," Emmer said. "I think in the future we'll do bigger venues."

Those who did get in frequently pressed Emmer to criticize Republican President Donald Trump — pressure Emmer largely sidestepped in the spirited but mostly civil forum.

"We'll have to see what they actually produce," Emmer said in response to a question asking his position about Congress paying for the wall Trump wants to build on the Mexican border. On calls to support congressional investigations of Trump and Russia's role in the 2016 election, Emmer said he would defer to Congress' existing oversight committees.

Emmer's town hall Wednesday night came as Republican members of Congress have seen huge, often hostile crowds at similar events around the country. Like Emmer's event in his east-central Minnesota district, those turnouts have been driven by progressive discontent over Trump and his plans for immigration, health care and other issues.

Also like Emmer's forum, the town hall discontent around the country has been channeled by left-leaning activist groups, who have encouraged people to come and provided training and organization. Outside the Sartell event Wednesday, volunteers in reflective jackets kept order, provided food and led attendees in chants as they waited in line.

"We had a pretty good turnout," said Song Matmanivong, 43, of St. Cloud, who as a member of the Communication Workers of America had encouraged people to attend.

"A lot of our questions didn't really get answered by the congressman," Matmanivong said. "At least the questions were being heard."

EVENT SPIRITED BUT 'ORDERLY'

Emmer was largely jovial and friendly, empathizing with questioners' concerns and recognizing some from previous times he'd interacted with them. For one question, he even called on David Snyder, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate Emmer beat in the November election.

Audience members sometimes disagreed with Emmer vocally, calling out "no" when he said something they disagreed with. After one back-and-forth with a questioner, Emmer admonished her: "You don't have to be so angry."

But attendees inside the town hall refrained from chants or "disruptive behavior," which Emmer's chief of staff had said Tuesday could lead to the town hall being canceled.

"I was pleased it was as orderly as it was," said attendee Lee Kent, 54, of Marine on St. Croix, who said she disagreed with Emmer on many issues.

Emmer expressed similar sentiments at the event's end.

"Even though some of us have some differences ... I want to thank you for the way we've handled this tonight," he said.

Those trapped outside when the fire marshal closed the City Hall with 150 occupants did chant throughout the event, though their calls were largely inaudible inside. Although most of the crowd trying to get in was critical of Trump and Emmer, there was also a small group of Republican counter-protesters waving Trump signs.

EMMER AVOIDS SPLITS WITH TRUMP

On the issues, Emmer largely stuck to mainstream Republican principles — often drawing the audience's ire.

Asked to endorse a $15 per hour minimum wage, Emmer said he doesn't "support minimum anything" but wants to try to raise wages by cutting regulations.

And he stuck by his call to repeal the Affordable Care Act, calling it a "disaster" that was in a "death spiral." Emmer refused to commit to delaying a repeal until after Republicans have a full replacement plan, saying "time is of the essence."

But the second-term congressman avoided a combative tone, often making a verbal outreach to questioners before disagreeing with their request.

"It's time to stop pointing fingers," Emmer said. "The people who voted for (the Affordable Care Act) and tried to create it had the best interests of the people ... in mind."

The congressman did break from Trump on some minor areas. He criticized the rollout — but not the substance — of Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. And he disagreed with Trump's executive order requiring the elimination of two regulations for every new one created.

"It seems a little cute to do the, 'for every one regulation, you're going to repeal two,'" Emmer said.

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