The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump enters a new phase this week, raising the political stakes for the president and also for lawmakers like 2nd District Congressman Jared Golden of Maine.
Voters in Golden's district overwhelmingly supported the president in 2016, and that has left the freshman Democrat walking a fine line. Golden is trying to show his constituents back home that impeachment is not crowding out other issues that are important to them.
For the past two months the impeachment process has dominated the news from the nation's capital. But at a town hall hosted by Congressman Golden at the Swasey-Torrey American Legion Post in Dixfield, the entire controversy involving the president and Ukraine took a back seat to issues closer to home.
"They send you out west someplace and you're on hold for a half-hour, 40 minutes. And now the staffs are even squawking about it. They thought it was kind of funny at first, but …" says Randy Cantwell, a veteran who tells Golden about trouble with the phone systems at the Togus VA hospital. "And the veterans are just getting fed up."
Golden, wearing jeans, boots and an untucked chamois shirt, listens at the front of the room.
A combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Golden expresses familiarity with many of the issues raised during a town hall hosted by his congressional office, part of a tour designed to hit as many small towns as possible in the sprawling 2nd District — the largest east of the Mississippi.
"They outsourced calls to Togus to a call center out of state, is what you're telling me," Golden says to Cantwell.
Monday's town hall was organized as a veteran-specific forum. But other topics, including impeachment, were fair game, which prompted Dixfield Town Manager Dustin Starbuck to layout the ground rules for discourse.
"I know it won't be a problem, but everyone be respectful even if someone's, you know, opinion is disagreeable to you," Starbuck says.
It wasn't a problem.
For about an hour, roughly 20 attendees asked Golden to look into an assortment of issues…but impeachment did not come up.
A woman named Joy told Golden about delayed claims from toxic water at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base camp in North Carolina.
"I've had two answered. I've been waiting for almost a year for two more to have a hearing, and I have yet to hear about five and six," Joy says.
Charles Greene, commander of Dixfield post, asks about addiction services that have been moved out of Togus.
"They've done away with it. We still got millions of vets out there that need that kind of care. Why did Togus take that away and start spending millions of dollars on signs they don't need?" he asks.
The event took a brief detour when a local merchant held court to extol the benefits of medical marijuana.
Even when given the opportunity at the end of the meeting to discuss impeachment arose, no one broached the issue.
Golden says most of the town halls he's held have gone the same way.
"It's not that people don't care. But there are a lot of other priorities out there, and I think there's a general sentiment that people want a Congress and government that can work together and deliver," he says.
Golden acknowledges that working together and delivering are not words typically used to describe Congress these days, a condition stemming from the partisan gridlock that's gripped the capital for years.
But he notes that the Democratic-controlled House has passed hundreds of bills, and that most of them have gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate.
"If people feel like work isn't being done or prioritized they should take it up with the Senate at this point," Golden says.
Gridlock is not a new theme in Washington, but for Democrats in swing districts like Golden who are seeking reelection next year, it's become more complicated because of impeachment.
It's a talking point parroted by several of the four Republicans vying to oust Golden from office next year. And Golden and his staff appear to recognize the potential potency of the message, especially in a District that the president carried by 10 points.
"I actually don't agree with those who are trying to claim that the impeachment inquiry is crowding out work in Congress," Golden says.
And that's part of the message Golden is bringing to town halls and constituents in his district.
As for the impeachment inquiry, Golden says he's troubled by what's emerged and that it should be safe for both Republicans and Democrats to agree that A U.S. president should not ask a foreign government to investigate a political rival.
"But that doesn't mean that I am sold on what the best step is in terms of addressing it," he says.
Golden says he doesn't know if there's space for a bipartisan solution.
Such a solution seems unlikely: many House Democrats believe their case is strengthening with each witness and each piece of evidence. Meanwhile many Republicans are making the argument that the president did nothing wrong.
It's unclear what that dynamic means — if anything — for Golden's reelection hopes.
Originally published 3:18 p.m. Dec. 3, 2019