Ben Cardin Town Hall Addresses BDS, North Korea, Immigration

Sen. Ben Cardin interacts with the audience at the Bykota Senior Center. (Photo by David Stuck)

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin held a town hall meeting at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson on Monday that rapidly delved into the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, North Korea and immigration.

Billed as “A Better Deal” meeting, Cardin said he had organized the gathering and others because he was hearing concerns from constituents about the issues going on in Washington, D.C., and wanted to make himself available.

“Part of my responsibility is to listen, as well as to inform,” Cardin said.

About 100 people attended the event, where they were encouraged to ask questions and weigh in on federal issues. Several people told Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is in his second term, they oppose the Israel Anti-Boycott Act he is sponsoring.

The bill would expand the scope of a 1970s law penalizing businesses for complying with a boycott of Israel sanctioned by another country to also include intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and European Union. The penalties for breaking the law would be a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.

Nathan Feldman, a recent University of Maryland, College Park graduate, was among a handful of BDS protestors outside the entrance a half hour before the 12:30 p.m. meeting began.

Once inside the facility and at the microphone facing Cardin, Feldman expressed concern over free speech and the Middle East conflict aspects. He also questioned why Cardin wasn’t doing more to speak out on Israeli policy favoring Jewish settlements — including outposts — on Palestinian-claimed land, to which a few audience members applauded.

Nathan Feldman takes issues with Sen. Ben Cardin’s Israel Anti-Boycott Act. (Photo by David Stuck)

“As a former student at the University of Maryland, I have Palestinian friends dying in Gaza because they don’t have access to water,” Feldman said. “They don’t have proper access to electricity. They’re being kicked out of their homes in the West Bank and struggling in refugee camps.”

In a passionate response, Cardin blasted opponents for misstating the bill’s intent, noting he wishes “they would tell the facts correctly” and that he is frustrated with what he feels is a false portrayal. He also stressed the need for the United States to support Israel from the surrounding nations in the Middle East that don’t share the same democratic values.

“You can say whatever you want to say in this country,” Cardin said. “You can support boycotting Israel. You can have rallies. You can encourage companies to boycott Israel. You as a company can boycott Israel. There is no effort to stop you from doing that.”

Discussion also rose on the conflict with North Korea and the possibility of nuclear war, a heated topic on which Cardin has been openly critical of Republican President Donald Trump. After Trump warned earlier this month that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if it makes more threats against the United States, Cardin said the president’s comments “were not helpful” and showed he lacked the “temperament” to deal with such a crisis.

Cardin doubled down on that sentiment Monday, indicating that the United States must work diplomatically with Russia and China, among others, to get North Korea to sign into a nuclear power reduction treaty. Russia and China, which both share a border with North Korea, urged earlier this month for the United States not to take military action.

For Cardin, diplomacy and negotiation are the only ways he feels the United States can effectively control North Korea from moving forward with its nuclear and missile programs.

“If the United States was to do a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, it’s unlikely we could do that in a way that would prevent North Korea from using its chemical weapons, if not nuclear weapons, to cause massive causalities,” Cardin said.

Charlie Cooper of Baltimore, who kicked off the question-and-answer session with the question on North Korea, agreed. He said he felt a military course of action would be the worst action the United States could take since there are roughly 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea.

“It takes one person, one U.S. president to start nuclear war,” Cooper said with a scorned tone. “This is the most scary time since [the Cuban Missile Crisis].”

Talk also centered on immigration, specifically the threats Cardin feels the Trump administration has presented for the Dreamers — those who are eligible for protection from deportation under the Dream Act. Cardin said illegal immigrants who commit violent criminal acts should be the target of local and federal law enforcement’s immigration efforts.

“All they want is the opportunity to be Americans, because they are Americans,” Cardin said of the Dreamers. “We shouldn’t be rounding up people who are just trying to escape violence or start families here; they shouldn’t be the subject of deportation.”

Myles Hoenig addresses Sen. Cardin. (Photo by David Stuck)

Myles Hoenig, an educational advocate and veteran ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) teacher in Prince George’s County’s schools, praised Cardin for his pro-immigration stance. Hoenig fears there could be a considerable reduction in the number of students in his class when the new school year starts after Labor Day.

“I appreciate what you have to say about immigration,” Hoenig told Cardin. “I’m very much afraid as to what I’m going to find [in my classroom].”

Congress is in recess until Sept. 5, so Cardin took advantage of the opportunity to receive constructive feedback from his constituents.

Before the meeting, Chips Shutt, 81, of Baltimore, said he was encouraged Cardin was taking the time to listen to the opinions of voters and to address them the best he could.

“That’s one of the reasons I enjoy coming out to meetings like this,” said Shutt, who greeted Cardin as he made his way into the senior center.

In addition to the Towson meeting, Cardin held a town hall in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore earlier on Monday.

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