Comey intrigue overshadowed by pressing local concerns in many communities

The testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday sent ripples across the nation as millions tuned in. How are different communities responding to Comey? Hari Sreenivasan talks to Brandon Smith of Indiana Public Broadcasting, Jon Ralston of Nevada Independent and Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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    Millions of Americans tuned in to watch former FBI Director James Comey testify before Congress yesterday.

    But, as Hari Sreenivasan explores, what they saw differed widely, often depending on where they live.


    We look at the reaction across the country to the Comey hearing, the Russia investigations and President Trump's first few months in office with Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent, who joins us today from California, Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Brandon Smith with Indiana Public Broadcasting.

    Ashton, let me start with you.

    Millions of people watched this in D.C. Quite a few watched President Trump on the Rose Garden today deny what former Director Comey said. How does this compare to the reaction in your community? Were people paying attention to this?

  • ASHTON MARRA, West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

    I think in West Virginia, generally, there is the same kind of — there's the same level of attention as there is kind of generally across the country.

    But I will say, Hari, that a lot that's happening in Washington is being overshadowed by what's happening here at the local level in West Virginia. We're about 19 days away from a government shutdown. And if lawmakers don't approve a budget by June 30, that means all state workers get laid off, there's no more funding for any government services.

    And so what's happening at the local level for West Virginians is a much bigger issue than what's going on in Washington.


    Jon Ralston, all politics local? Is that the case in Nevada as well?

  • JON RALSTON, Editor, Nevada Independent:

    Well, to some extent. Our legislature just ended. But the shadow of Trump is over everything, as you know.

    They did a lot of things in reaction to Trump, the legislative leaders. It's controlled by Democrats here. We have a Republican governor who is not that Trump-friendly. They passed some bills to try to codify the Obamacare here. They sent out a lot of press releases about Trump.

    Nevada's an unusual state, to put it mildly, as all of you know, but we also are one of the few states to go completely Democratic in 2016. Went for Clinton. The legislature turned. We had two Republican congressional seats flip to the Democrats.

    So there is not — it's not exactly Trump-friendly territory in the first place. But I think that all politics is local here, in the sense that people are reacting to what just happened in the legislature, what kind of education policies were passed.

    And, of course, the big issue here, which nobody is talking about elsewhere, is, we have a new legalization of marijuana and a pot tax, which overshadows a lot of things.


    All right, we will get to those issues in a second.

    Brandon Smith, people outside the reporter class, the bubble that you're in at the statehouse, were they watching? Were they tuned in?

  • BRANDON SMITH, Indiana Public Broadcasting:

    Not nearly in the kind of — with the fervor you saw in the nation's capital.

    Here, it was — I think, as Ashton mentioned, it's just sort of viewing this same way they viewed everything coming out of Washington, D.C., these last few months. Certainly, walking around the statehouse yesterday, which is where I work, you heard the audio of the Comey hearing coming out of a lot of offices.

    And it was on at the lobbyist bar across the street. But beyond that, no, people weren't paying nearly as close attention.


    Brandon, staying with you for a second, what are people in Indiana paying attention to?


    Well, it's a couple big things, one, the economy.

    This is a heavy manufacturing state, which is partly why Donald Trump's message of bringing American jobs back, referencing Carrier, which had said that it was pulling out of Indiana and all of that, people care about that here. They pay a lot of attention to that here, that and health care.

    This is a state that went through its own version of Medicaid expansion with Mike Pence's HIP 2.0, which is what he called Indiana's program. And that has enrolled 400,000 Hoosiers in the program. And if that gets taken away, that's a lot of people losing out on affordable health care. And that's something people here really care about.


    Ashton Marra, Medicaid expansion also something in West Virginia, but there is also a lot of talk about coal jobs. The president uses that opportunity whenever he gets…



    The president came and visited the state before the Republican primary last year, and he came to talk about coal and to show his support for the coal industry, and, since he's taken office, has continued talking about putting coal miners back to work in West Virginia.

    I will say that the state, you know, we're on the edge of this fiscal cliff, essentially, but in the past couple of months, we have seen a rebound in the coal industry and a really small increase in the amount of money we're bringing in from the coal severance tax.

    So, at the local level, what West Virginia voters see is, we voted for someone who said he was going to put miners back to work, and then just as recently as yesterday, one coal mine in Southern West Virginia announced, hey, we're going to open our doors again and put some 300 coal miners back to work.


    Jon Ralston, besides the pot tax, what else are people in Nevada paying attention to?


    Well, you mentioned the Medicaid expansion. This is a state that did expand Medicaid. We had a Republican governor, one of the few to expand Medicaid.

    There is now a bill sitting on his desk that has gotten a lot of national attention already that would be Medicaid for all, in other words, universal health care in the state of Nevada. There's a lot of emotion behind that. It's no telling yet whether the governor is going to sign it. I think it's 50/50 at best, maybe leaning slightly against it.

    Health care is a big issue in Nevada. We have had a lot of uninsured. The Medicaid expansion helped hundreds of thousands of Nevadans. And now you have our U.S. senator, Dean Heller, the only Republican incumbent running in a state that was won by Clinton, going all over the map on Medicaid expansion, first saying that he wants to phase it out, then coming back today and correcting that and saying, well, he's not so sure.

    And so that issue of Medicaid expansion and whether we will be the only state in the state in the country to have Medicaid for all if the governor signs that bill is a huge issue here.


    I want to ask all of you a question about the level of support that exists for the president among those voters that stuck with him in the polls.

    Recent polling from The Washington Post on ABC on Wednesday reveals a majority, 56 percent of Americans say Trump is interfering with the Russia investigations, rather than cooperating. His approval ratings are relatively low right now.

    Brandon, let me start with you.


    Well, Indiana is as much Trump country as you are going to find. He won the state here by 19 points in 2016.

    And I'm sure that number isn't as strong as it was in November, but it's still pretty strong here. I think that the overriding sense among Hoosiers is, a lot of this stuff is distraction or it's not Donald Trump's fault, but it's distracting from the real work, and so they're still counting on him to fulfill his promises.


    Ashton Marra?


    Yes, I think the same is true here in West Virginia.

    President Trump won the state at the largest majority that's ever happened over a Democratic candidate. And so I think, for the most part, Trump supporters in West Virginia are still Trump supporters, and they feel that way because of the things that are happening that we have already talked about, things at the local level, like this small bump in the coal industry.


    Jon Ralston, Nevada being a purple to blue state?


    Yes, Nevada, as you know, Trump lost here by a couple of points.

    You have essentially three states here. You have the two urban areas of Reno and Las Vegas. Then you have rural Nevada, where Trump won in a landslide. They're the kind of people where if Donald Trump shot somebody on Las Vegas Boulevard south of the Strip, they would still support him.

    The urban area of Las Vegas, three-quarters of the vote sometimes is very, very Democratic, not Trump country. And then we have the swing county of Washoe County, which is Reno and Sparks, which is more closely divided. But I think that that leans a little bit Democratic now when it comes to presidential races.

    So it's three states. I don't think anyone's views are changing because of what's happened so far.


    All right, well, all three of your states have Senate contests in the midterms coming up, so I'm sure we will check back in with you.

    Brandon Smith, Ashton Marra, Jon Ralston, thank you all.


    Thank you.

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