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Angst-filled voters make voices heard on various issues at Pitt town hall

In a sometimes-raucous town hall meeting filled with several hundred people, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey heard concerns about war in Syria, natural gas fracking and health care, among other issues.

Mr. Casey, a Democrat, hosted a town hall meeting for constituents on Sunday at the University of Pittsburgh.

The crowd, many of whom sported T-shirts supporting Planned Parenthood or action on environmental issues, greeted the senator with a standing ovation as he appeared on stage.

Most of the disagreements with Mr. Casey or tough questions for him seemed to be coming from his political left, as a number of those in attendance said they felt he should take stronger stands against hydraulic fracturing — known as fracking — for natural gas reserves, that he should oppose any further U.S. military action in Syria (President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike against a base after a chemical gas attack on civilians last week), and he should support a “Medicare for all” health care system.

Others in attendance aired concerns about redistricting reform, the opioid crisis and the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.

Mr. Casey faces re-election next year. He has two declared Republican challengers, both state representatives from Western Pennsylvania: Rep. Rick Saccone, R- Elizabeth, and Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver.

Several speakers questioned Mr. Casey’s recent supportive statements regarding Mr. Trump’s airstrikes in Syria.

One man asked why Mr. Casey would support “attacking a country which did not attack the United States” without Congressional authorization.

The senator responded that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians warranted such a response.

“This was a very proportional and limited strike,” he said.

However, Mr. Casey said he believed the president must seek a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force from Congress if he intends to take any further military action

“We have to have that debate,” he said.

Additionally, the president must outline a strategy for Syria, Mr. Casey said.

As he was speaking, some people began chanting, “No more war! No more war!”

Another audience member said he was concerned the country was being drawn into another situation like the Iraq war.

“I do worry that we are not learning from the mistakes of the recent past,” he said.

Regarding health care, several said Mr. Casey should go beyond the health care changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act and support more universal coverage.

“I know, the Affordable Care Act, while it did good, it’s not sustainable,” said one audience member. “I believe that the best thing to do is have Medicare for all, and the majority of the people in this country support that.”

The senator was a vocal opponent of the Republican-crafted plan to undo the Affordable Care Act, which was pulled by House leaders before reaching a vote.

Mr. Casey, while defending the insurance coverage gains under the Affordable Care Act, said there should be consideration of “a Medicare-like public option” for those who are not covered currently.

At times, the gathering resembled a group therapy session for frustrated Democrats, with multiple complaints that the party has no clear message or leader, and others concerned that the party and its elected officials are in a defensive position with Republicans controlling Congress and the White House.

“I think you are right, that we have to have a much clearer message,” particularly on jobs and economic issues, Mr. Casey said in response to one woman who raised the issue.

“I hear you,” he told her.

“I’m going to speak to you like a family member,” said another woman, who added she hoped he would be re-elected in 2018. “I hope that you are sensing the kind of angst, desperation, the anxiety that exists among all of us and throughout the country right now. … Step up your passion,” for the election, she told him.

Some political observers have noted that in recent months, following the election of Mr. Trump, that Mr. Casey has shifted from his traditionally more low-key style to being more assertive and outspoken, particularly on issues involving the president.

Following the meeting, Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, criticized Mr. Casey for his “hard turn to the left” and for his support of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan regulations, as well as his role in voting against the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who will be sworn in as Supreme Court Justice Monday.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.