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Rep. Welch reacts to AZ shooting

January 10, 2011

… State senator says rhetoric gets heated in Vermont, too

Vt. Rep. Peter Welch

NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON —  Congressman Peter Welch cautioned Monday against assigning blame for the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson on Saturday.

Welch said he and Giffords, a fellow Democrat, are “close friends,” having entered Congress in the class of 2006.

“The way it tends to work in Congress is the people you come to Congress with become your closest friends because you spend a lot of time with them,” Welch said on a conference call with reporters held shortly before observing a national moment of silence.

“It’s just a devastating personal blow, obviously for everybody, but for those that came to Congress with her … it’s just a terrible, terrible tragedy and loss,” he added.

Welch observed the 11 a.m. EST moment of silence at his home in Hartland, spokesman Paul Heintz said. Heintz and hundreds of other congressional staffers gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to mark the moment.

As the national debate ramps up about the cause of the shooting, allegedly carried out by 22-year-old Tucson resident Jared Lee Loughner, Welch said blame for an intemperate political climate can be assigned to people on both sides of the political spectrum — but that won’t help. Instead, people must “take responsibility for our own voice.”

“You can come up with examples on both sides,” he said. “If we try to get into the assignment of blame I don’t know if we’ll end up with much progress.”

Still, Welch said the “horrific massacre” that left six dead and 14 wounded, including Giffords, who suffered a pointblank gunshot through the brain, has highlighted the “immense amount of
over-the-top rhetoric and symbolism” in the country’s political debates.

“This has generated an enormous amount of discussion about the tone of the debate in this country and just how volatile it is,” Welch said. “What we all know is that the tone of the debate has just crossed lines in many cases.”

Some have cited a graphic distributed by the political action committee of Sarah Palin, a former Republican vice presidential candidate, that featured “gun sights’ on a map over congressional districts held by Democrats she hoped to defeat.

“That’s, in my view, inappropriate,” Welch said.

Welch said it remains unclear what Loughner’s motivation was, or whether heated rhetoric contributed. Various news outlets have alluded to mental issues, but investigators have not assigned a motive. Police have said Giffords was the intended target, however.

“This is a deranged person. What motivated him or triggered him I do not know,” Welch said.

Some members of Congress have called for increased security for members in their home districts. Others have said they may carry weapons themselves.

Welch said members of Congress and their spouses were briefed by law enforcement officials on a conference call Sunday about security concerns. He said security issues are being handled by the U.S. Capitol Police.

“Everything is under review now,” he said. “We’ll be following instruction by them.”

Welch said Monday he has “never felt under threat” during his time in Congress, which has included about 90 public events similar to the event Giffords was holding Saturday when the shooting took place.

“I’ve been treated well by Vermonters,” he said. “People have been very animated and on occasion expressed disagreement … but I’ve never felt that anyone has crossed the line.”

Engaging with constituents is an important part of the job, Welch said, and important for effective government.

“All of us, Republicans and Democrats, are very proud that the Constitution makes us the closest to the people. We have to run every two years,” he said. “Members of the Congress are quite proud that they’re on the street and listening to people.”

Politicians, pundits and voters have a “responsibility to treat the people we disagree with the same respect we want to be treated with,” Welch said. Vermont can serve as an example to the nation on respectful political discourse, he said.

“Civility is about creating a culture where the political system, which belongs to the people, can actually solve problems,” he said. “The Vermont approach, with civility as the foundation of our politics, we need more of in America.”

Bennington County state Sen. Dick Sears said Vermont lawmakers have seen their share of heated rhetoric and threats, too, however. Sears serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which deals “with some pretty emotional stuff,” he said.

“The most difficult time for me was during civil unions in 2000. The calls and the threats were very real. Many of them were because some right-winger posted my number on church bulletins,” Sears said. “We were getting crazy calls from Texas. It wasn’t just in-state stuff.”

Most issues generate political threats, Sears said, in which people threaten to vote for other people in the next election. But the civil union debate, judicial retention hearings and some other hot-button issues have spurred more worrisome threats.

“Political threats are different from physical threats, threats of physical harm,” he said. “While I agree with Congressman Welch that we tend to have more calm debates, you can never say it won’t happen here. When you give somebody who’s unbalanced a reason to act out, they frequently do.”

Sears said he has expressed his concerns to the Statehouse’s Sergeant at Arms and the Vermont Capitol Police, but security is only heightened on rare occasions. “They don’t take me seriously. We have a very open Statehouse. I’m glad we do, but it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t experience something,” he said.

The U.S. House of Representatives was expected this week to debate and vote on repealing a health care reform law passed last year after a protracted and often uncivil debate. Congressional leaders have said that will be postponed.

Welch said the debate and votes will happen, and members of Congress will vote as they see fit. He said he is looking for a respectful tone as lawmakers debate, however.

“I don’t expect that this massacre is going to change anyone’s vote on health care, but I do hope it’s going to change everyone’s tone,” he said.

Other Vermont officials issued statements expressing sadness over the weekend. U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders noted the attack involved a public official interacting with constituents.

“This senseless and cowardly shooting occurred as the congresswoman and her constituents were engaged in the kind of event that makes our democracy work and represents America at its best. Anti-government sentiment carried to a violent and deadly extreme is a sad reflection of America at its worst. America is better than this,” Sanders said.

“This mass shooting at a public gathering targeting public officials, citizens and staff adds another layer of concern to this tragedy. Any assault on representative democracy must not be allowed to succeed in thwarting or muting citizens’ access to their elected
representatives,” Leahy said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, too, condemned the attack and wished Giffords and other victims well.

“(Saturday’s) shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of at least five others is a senseless tragedy. Such hatred and violence has no place in our society. My thoughts are with Rep. Giffords’ family and the families of the other victims, which include members of her staff,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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