SPOTSYLVANIA — During her second town hall in as many months in office, freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, fielded questions on topics as far-flung as broadband access in rural America, the immigration debate and a massive solar farm set for a vote in Spotsylvania County this week.
More than 100 people gathered in the auditorium of the Marshall Center on Saturday afternoon in a county where a majority of votes went to Spanberger’s Republican opponent, then-incumbent Dave Brat. The former CIA operative’s narrow win marked the first time in almost 50 years the 7th District went blue.
“I didn’t win by a lot. I’m aware of that,” said Spanberger, who immediately struck a conciliatory tone in her opening remarks. Regardless of political leaning, “I thank you for being here today.”
Spanberger began by offering that she had helped introduce 13 bills in just more than 50 days since she took office — a dozen of them bipartisan.
“I am committed to places we can agree,” she said to an overwhelmingly friendly audience that met her arrival with cheers and applause.
Later, she added: “We make progress as a country when we listen to a broad spectrum of voices.”
Spanberger described how broadband access was “a great opportunity for bipartisanship.”
An appropriations bill signed Feb. 14 dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars to broadband. “Some people need bridges and tunnels,” she said. “We need internet.”
The partial government shutdown — the longest in history — dominated Spanberger’s first weeks in office, she said. She supports a measure that would require members of Congress to forfeit their own pay if they are “willing to use federal employees as negotiating tools” in the future.
A woman in a “Humanity First” T-shirt kicked off the questions during the event. She described how her Huguenot ancestors came to America in search of religious freedom and asked Spanberger how she intended to ensure the humane treatment of immigrants and refugees going forward — a topic raised at least twice more by constituents.
Spanberger said she had co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit families from being separated at the border going forward, and there are several ongoing inquiries about the hundreds of still-missing children.
Dozens of red shirts dotted the audience, many of them worn by residents who oppose a contentious 500-megawatt solar farm proposed on 5,200 acres. The Spotsylvania Planning Commission has backed a 245-acre segment.
Mike Mikolosko was among those who questioned Spanberger about it.
She said that it was ultimately a county decision, but that she supports renewable energy. Still, she “can very much understand the concerns.”
A constituent from Culpeper County asked Spanberger to commit to meet with what he called a group of “solar skeptics.”
The congresswoman said she would.
In an interview afterward, Mikolosko, who lives in Spotsylvania’s Livingston District, said he understands Spanberger’s position, although he was not wholly satisfied with her answer.
“The state advocates renewable energy and I understand she cannot directly interfere in the local administration,” he said. “But I didn’t hear her say that a big solar farm is not a good idea.”
The largely civil — and somewhat staid — town hall was not without its quips from Spanberger’s allies and opponents.
One made a reference to “Republicans and Russians;” another called Democrats “the party of death and taxes.”
But the event ended how it started.
Shawn Davis, a Spotsylvania pastor, posed the final question: “If you were president for a day, what advice would you give Americans for coming together?”
Spanberger said she would urge Americans to “reflect on the times we’ve been the strongest,” from the country’s initial founding to its toppling of tyranny in World War II and the patriotism that pervaded the nation after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“The push and pull of ideas, and the belief that anything is possible, is what made us the greatest nation in the world,” she said.