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Congressman Scott Perry faced pressure from constituents Tuesday evening at a town hall event in Hummelstown — his first in over two years — as he prepares for what is expected to be a tight 2020 re-election.

Perry endured criticism prior to the event from constituents regarding the small venue size at the Hummelstown volunteer fire hall, with the event registration page showing it booked full within an hour of the town hall being announced, according to several who tried to register.

However, by the time Perry began speaking on Tuesday, only half of the 120 seats were filled. Additional people were allowed in during the event, bringing total attendance to about 85. Perry’s staff said they sent invitations to wait-listed registrants as seats became available.

Perry’s response to many of the more combative audience questions was consistent with his tenure as a member of the House Freedom Caucus: The policy solution being presented was either too expensive, or not within the purview of the federal government, according to Perry.

“There’s no provision in the federal Constitution that says we should be telling individual employers all across the land you should be providing these things,” Perry said in response to a question about family leave, a response he echoed on a question about the minimum wage.

Similarly, Perry said, he opposed hurricane assistance to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid because “all we’re doing is encouraging poor behavior.”

“You as a state or territory have a responsibility to take care of your population,” as opposed to the federal government, Perry said.

For supporters, Perry’s slash-and-burn approach was welcome.

“Government spends and spends on programs that are unnecessary,” constituent Chris Delvecchio said.

However, critics said, the federal government has run record deficits and accrued debt at an accelerating rate since the 2017 Republican-led tax cut, which Perry championed, even as the U.S. economy begins to show signs of a slow-down.

For voters like Delvecchio, this was not an issue.

“My understanding is the majority [of the deficit spending] is going to the military. ... I’m all for that,” he said.

“He’s being honest” about what the federal government should and shouldn’t do, said attendee Bob Hirsch. “It’s the same thing I like about [President Donald] Trump. I’d like to see spending cut back,” he said.

But for voters like Lisa Savadel, Perry seemed to be changing his position on the federal government putting out more cash than it takes in, depending on which party was calling the shots.

“Trump comes in, and his people basically endorse another stimulus package, which the Freedom Caucus had been complaining about for years under Obama,” Savadel said. “Scott Perry is a hypocrite.”

Savadel and about two dozen others picketed outside prior to the event with signs critical of Perry.

Many of those voters said that their fundamental concerns about Perry going into 2020 were much the same as they were in 2018, particularly Perry’s vote in favor of the failed Republican health care bill that would have eliminated the Affordable Care Act’s regulations on how much insurance companies can increase rates for patients with pre-existing conditions.

In response to a health care question during the town hall, Perry sought to distance himself from the GOP health care flap, saying he fought to make the bill more favorable to patients than it was originally.

“The bill was introduced by the speaker at the time, Speaker [Paul] Ryan, none of us had seen it,” Perry said. “I was one of the guys that fought to make that better.”

However, the version of the American Health Care Act endorsed by the Freedom Caucus in 2017 curtailed the ACA’s “essential health benefits” requirement, allowing insurers to cover fewer procedures and conditions, a provision that was not in the original Ryan bill. Perry’s vote on the matter was explicitly cited by former GOP state Sen. Pat Vance in her 2018 endorsement of Perry’s Democratic opponent, George Scott.

Issues

Perry opened Tuesday’s town hall with an overview of some of his recent legislative work, including bills to crack down on female genital mutilation, an issue Perry said was more prevalent than many think. He also highlighted his work in opening up more dams to hydro-power, an accomplishment that he also used in response to questions about climate change.

On a number of issues, Perry was pressed by constituents for not having a clear policy proposal. When asked what he was doing to help struggling public schools, Perry said, “We have to start looking for solutions and have an open conversation,” prompting audience members to shout, “What are you actually going to do about it?”

When asked what he was doing to improve conditions at migrant detention camps on the southern border, Perry said, “They are being cared for as best we can under the circumstances,” and criticized Democrats for proposing “open borders” solutions, eliciting a similar audience response.

Multiple questions were fielded about election security and Russian influence on campaigns. Perry said election interference is “nothing new” and that he voted against recent election security legislation because it would involve replacing electronic machines with paper ballots, which Perry saw as unnecessary.

Outside the event, as within, voters pointed to issues such as Perry’s support for Trump’s vehicle emissions rollbacks or his votes against budget resolutions to re-open the government after the shutdown over the border wall proposal earlier this year, as indications that Perry’s policy goals were largely regressive.

“He’s constantly trying to retract and pull us back, but what is his alternative?” asked voter Gaylon Morris. “I’m just not really clear on what his vision is.”

Perry, who was first elected in 2012, saw his district boundaries change significantly shortly before the 2018 election due to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s anti-gerrymandering decision. The new district covers all of Dauphin County as well as northern York County, including York city, and eastern Cumberland County, including Carlisle.

Perry won his 2018 race against Scott, his Democratic challenger, by 2.6 points, and is expected to face another strong challenge.

Two Democrats have already announced 2020 campaigns for Perry’s district: current state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Tom Brier, an attorney from Dauphin County.

Perry is considered one of the farthest-right members of Congress — one of a handful of contenders for the highest possible rating from the American Conservative Union — and a frequent defender of Trump. During a recent appearance on the talk show of former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, Perry said that the president “like a phoenix from the fire came as a message, I think delivered from the Lord himself” to fight back against encroaching socialism.

When asked Tuesday why he has not condemned any of Trump’s recent Twitter outbursts, widely viewed as racist, Perry demurred.

“I’m not condemning anyone,” Perry said. “I’ve got my vote and you’ve got your vote.”

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Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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Cumberland County/Investigative Reporter

Reporter for The Sentinel.