Congressman Hank Johnson covered a broad range of topics during a town hall meeting at the Newton County Historic Courthouse Wednesday, which was briefly interrupted by an argument between constituents over accusations of engrained racism in the Republican Party.
Johnson, a Democrat representing Georgia's fourth congressional district, which covers Newton, Rockdale, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, opened the meeting by honoring Jack Simpson of the Newton County Sheriff's Office, the oldest certified peace officer in the state and probably the county, with a special congressional recognition plaque.
"It's better to sit in the Sheriff's Office and follow up on investigations than to sit on the porch and rust," Simpson quipped.
Johnson then went on to review the major topics being debated in Washington, including health care and the nuclear deal with Iran, which he supports.
"This deal is not to stop Iran from being an aggressive foe to the U.S....it's simply to deal with this issue of their ability to become a nuclear power," he said.
Johnson also said he would oppose Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
In response to a question about the Voting Rights Act, Johnson gave a quick explanation of the Supreme Court's ruling and its implications, and said an updated version of the legislation was unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
"The Republicans don't want to see a fix to the VRA because they are the ones who benefit from deterring African Americans from voting," he said.
Responding to another question about whether the U.S. should abolish the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard, Johnson said it was unfeasible.
"There's not enough gold to support a growing world economy," he said.
Johnson also criticized the Supreme Court for striking down a federal mandate to states to expand Medicaid coverage. He accused Republicans of playing politics with health care reform.
One critical constituent told Johnson he did not feel he represented his beliefs, and asked what Johnson thinks should be done about illegal immigration.
"This country was built on a system of free labor," Johnson said, referring to slavery and Jim Crow era sharecropping. "Who are the new black people? Poor Mexicans who are attracted to come over the border and to do work that Americans don't want to do."
He spoke of the need to reform immigration law to address both highly skilled and low skilled labor.
Another constituent asked the congressman how the American people can work to "get money out of politics," referring to the Citizens United decision.
Johnson admitted it would be difficult due to the legal recognition of corporate personhood.
Barring a constitutional amendment to specifically exclude corporations from the Fourteenth Amendment, Johnson said introducing disclosure requirements and other forms of regulation could help increase transparency.
One man stood up to thank Johnson for his service before asking what Congress intends to do about racism.
"We live with it every day," said the man, who was white. "All Republicans are either racist or in bed with racism."
His comment provoked anger from several other attendees, who ended up walking out.
"Sir, you are ignorant," one said to the man before leaving.
Johnson did not address the question of Congressional action, but said it was important to continue working together.
Johnson went on to discuss bipartisan support for prison reform, and sustainable gun control, such as closing the "gun show loophole". He said, however, that ending gun violence requires a holistic approach to education and poverty, but that Republicans are generally opposed to spending on social issues.
Johnson did not comment on any local issues aside from offering to "bring folks together" over contentious issues such as the landfill.
Several veterans applauded Johnson's decision to back the Iran deal as a means to avoid another war.
"The people talking about being ready to send more young people to war, they are not talking about sending their own children," said one veteran. Another pointed out that the Department of Veterans Affairs is already struggling to meet the needs of current veterans.