May 27, 2024

Voter engagement lacking at AFPI town hall

Miller-Meeks, Whitaker, McMahon discuss agenda but leave little room for guest interaction

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who is running for Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, speaks with representatives of the America First Policy Institute on Aug. 18 in Building 20 of DMACC's Legacy Plaza in Newton.

Although it was advertised as a town hall meeting, the America First Policy Institute’s “How We Plan to Save the Country” event held Aug. 18 in Newton gave little opportunity for the public to ask questions, and instead used its own representatives to lead the discussion towards the organization’s agenda.

That agenda was further emphasized by the panel of conservatives mostly comprised of AFPI staff and former members of the Trump Administration like AFPI board chairperson Linda McMahon and co-chair of AFPI’s center for law and justice Matthew Whitaker. Altogether, the event lasted about an hour.

AFPI is a group that identifies itself as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization but is classified by others as a 501(c)4 social welfare group. It was created following the election of Donald Trump as a way to promote the America First policy agenda, which was prevalent in his administration.

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who is running for Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, was the only candidate to speak at the meeting. Apart from her opening speech, she entertained the talking points provided by AFPI’s chief operating officer Doug Hoelscher, the former assistant to President Trump.

When Hoelscher did allow opportunities for questions from the crowd of roughly 30 people, it was the locals who were largely shut out from the conversation.

Several hands raised but only five people were able to ask a question to the panel. The first question came from Eric Branstad, son of former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a self-described Trump Administration alum. The second question, which was more of a comment, came from Hoelscher’s 80-year-old father.

By the time organizers handed the microphone to a third individual, about 40 minutes had passed. Larry Pauley, of Newton, asked to no one in particular who was buying the United States’ debt, noting his question derived from a recent visit to a restaurant which he claimed could not afford to buy hamburger anymore.

Miller-Meeks said prices for everything are increasing and it is causing a lot of issues for small businesses, many of which were struggling during the pandemic. Several small business owners are asking themselves: Do I have enough revenue to purchase supplies? Can I raise my prices and still be in business?

“Just as things start to pick up and look better, they’re hit with all these inflationary costs. They are struggling,” Miller-Meeks said. “(And) we know that our debt is purchased by a variety of entities. Our debt is purchased by the Federal Reserve. Our debt is purchased by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Other countries also pay for the United States’ debt, she continued. She recalled a saying from her childhood, which is also Bible passage in Proverbs 22:7.

“The borrower is slave to the lender,” she said. “So we have to be very careful.”

The fourth person called on asked a question directly to McMahon, asking what it was like to work with Trump and what policies she is most proud of from his administration. AFPI moved on to its own topics and would not have called on another person for a question if McMahon had not called attention to him.

“We’ve got a hand waving in the back,” McMahon said. “You think maybe we can have one more question?”

Hoelscher did allow a fifth person to question the panelists. The attendee specifically asked about AFPI’s stance on turning social security into a discretionary spending program, which is something U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., had spoken about recently.

“They want to make it so that social security has to be voted on every year by Congress,” the man said. “I want to know where does the America First Agenda fit into this because it’s not mentioned in the book. I want to know where it’s coming from and what do you support as far as social security.”

Hoelscher said AFPI wants to keep its commitment to seniors who need the safety net of social security. The organization, he said, is looking for long-term solutions to decrease the nation’s debt. Hoelscher then said he would speak with the man after the meeting since the panel was so short on time.

After speaking with organizers, Newton News found out the event was the first one AFPI had organized. Time constraints may certainly play a part in the lack of questions, but there were clearly guests who had issues on their mind but were ignored and drowned out by AFPI’s talking points. Their voices were not heard.

While it is possible folks conversed with the panel after it concluded, it is important to note Miller-Meeks — whose position as a candidate and an elected official far outweighs the others carrying the conversation — had to leave for another gathering. Still, for a “town hall,” there was almost no citizen engagement.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 560 or

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.