U.S. Rep. Mark Walker said the political climate in Washington, D.C., is just as divisive as it is perceived to be.
Walker was in Mount Airy on Monday and met with a handful of leaders from throughout the local community at the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce office. Those who took the opportunity to meet with the congressman included representatives from local school districts, the chamber, Mount Airy city government officials and local business leaders.
Walker represents Surry County as part of his 6th Congressional District until January, when the county will once again become part of U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx’s district.
The meeting was informal, and after a few opening remarks, Walker opened the floor to questions.
At one point, Surry County Schools superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves asked Walker about the political climate in the nation’s capitol and what role special interest groups have in creating what Reeves said is perceived as a “divisive” environment.
“It is as divisive as what you see,” said Walker.
The congressman identified special interest groups as “first in driving divisiveness,” noting the amount of money involved with lobbying activities in the nation’s capitol.
He also said a world driven by social media has made it harder to “plow through” the nation’s problems and find a result that is best for the American people.
He said some changes need to happen to the way leaders approach issues before any headway is made.
“There must be an understanding of where the other person is coming from,” said Walker. “That place of understanding is the foundation on which we must build with people with whom we disagree.”
He said it’s “unfortunate” the rhetoric is “nasty,” and he noted it’s evidenced in the current national elections.
“We have a guy who can’t speak a paragraph without personally attacking somebody,” said Walker, likely alluding to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“We have a presidential election with two candidates with the lowest likeability ratings.”
Walker did add he is supporting the Republican nominee, but has some concerns about some of the things he is saying.
With Reeves and Mount Airy Schools superintendent Dr. Kim Morrison at the meeting, many questions centered on education. However, Walker said healthcare may be the largest legislative issue the next administration and Congress faces.
“Healthcare is probably the number one legislative issue because of the political football it has become,” said Walker.
While he noted the government healthcare system passed under the Obama administration may have been well intended, he’s concerned with a number of major problems which have surfaced since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
“The next president will have a bucket-load of issues to address,” said Walker.
He added he will “error on the side of ensuring healthcare needs are met” in any votes he casts on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mount Airy Commissioner Steve Yokeley, a Navy veteran, asked about what’s being done to ensure veterans receive appropriate healthcare.
He cited a recent case of a local man who waited seven weeks for an appointment in the Veterans Affairs system. The man had a broken tibia.
“What I’m hearing from many veterans is that the care is improving, but there are still issues with navigating the process,” said Walker.
Walker said he’s proud of what his office has done to help veterans, noting his office has helped more than 500 veterans resolve issues with the VA, ranging from compensation issues to issues with the healthcare system.
The next move to improve the VA on a legislative front will be legislation which will create “true choice” in healthcare for veterans, said Walker. Opening the Veterans Choice program to all veterans is how Walker believes many VA healthcare issues will be resolved.
A bill to do just that has yet to reach the floor for a vote, and Walker noted it isn’t likely to reach the floor until after the November elections.
Denise Watson, who chairs the Mount Airy Chamber and works as executive director of Mountain Valley Hospice, shared a story about a local veteran who needed inpatient hospice care. The VA denied the claim and sought to have the veteran transferred to one of its facilities.
Watson said her organization opted to provide the care free of charge.
“We can’t do that for everybody,” said Watson.
One question, fielded from Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation Manager of Public Relations Adam Martin, regarded congressional districts and a recent court ruling which forced the state legislature to redraw the districts.
“Is gerrymandering contributing to the divisiveness?” asked Martin. “What are your thoughts on the (congressional) maps?”
“It’s always disappointing when you work with people, and then it’s all wiped clean,” answered Walker, adding the new districts “make a little more sense on a map.”
The congressman said it takes time to build relationships in a district, and he noted he appreciates all those he has built in the areas he will no longer represent.
Until January, however, Walker said he still represents Surry County and its residents. While he is looking forward to building similar relationships in the new areas of the state he will represent if re-elcted, he values those he has had the opportunity to forge in Surry, Stokes and other counties.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.