Sen. Ben Cardin said he's "sort of spoiled representing the state of Maryland." While some of his colleagues must fly back and forth from Washington, D.C. to meet with their constituents, he doesn't have to.
"I really enjoy this," the Democrat said about town halls. "It helps me."
When he walked into Saturday's town hall in Lanham about 10 minutes early, he walked amongst the audience, shaking the hands of attendees.
About 60 people turned out Saturday afternoon, including several local and state politicians. Cardin spoke mainly on tax reform, though he also covered gun safety, health care, immigration and the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement against Israel. The latter topic was not on the town hall invitation, but about five individuals arrived to protest at the town hall in favor of the movement, which Cardin has denounced.
Shortly after the town hall started, the protesters marched in the room chanting and clapping. Cardin was silent for a minute or so, allowing them to make their entrance before they sat down quietly in the back of the room.
"Thank you," he said. "We know you're here."
Germantown resident Roni White said she was thankful this town hall was on a Saturday so it wouldn't interfere with her work schedule.
"I'm always interested in my civic duty and being able to connect with the representatives of our state and of our country," she said. "For representatives to be able to hear the many voices and stay encouraged, that's important, too, because once they go back to other, in this case senators … it can get lost about who you're representing and why."
Natalie Beary, a 17-year-old resident of Great Mills and student at the College of Southern Maryland, said she and her mom came to have their voices heard, which she said can be difficult in St. Mary's County, where 59.5 percent voted Republican in 2016, according to Politico.
"We only really got involved in politics last November but there aren't so many opportunities for politics in St. Mary's County," Beary said. "We wanted to hear something about our own elected officials. We all tend to focus on national government, but we don't focus on state and local things, and it's so important to hear something that's tailored to the audience that's here."
Cardin, who was elected in 2006, is the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. From 1987 to 2006, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cardin also served as the youngest elected speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1979 to 1986.
Cardin was a primary sponsor on the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017, which was signed by President Trump on Aug. 2, as well as the Improving Access to Emergency Psychiatric Care Act. In June, he introduced the Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act, which would "amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to reauthorize the Chesapeake Bay Program," according to GovTrack.
But his main message to attendees was to stay focused.
On the "terrible things" happening regarding sexual misconduct accusations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and senatorial candidate Roy Moore (R-Ala.), Cardin said, "We gotta talk about them."
"I'm not saying don't talk about them," he continued. "But don't get distracted by it, because the ball is moving down the field on tax reform, and we gotta stay focused on it."
"If you're focused on education, if that's your passion, then there is no higher priority than education," he added.
"As much as it might overwhelm me to do what I feel is turning my back on something, I have to specialize," she said. "I have to focus on what I'm good at."
Cardin addressed the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bill in opposition to a March 2016 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that called for a "blacklist" targeting Israeli commerce.
The UNHRC requested information from American companies as to whether they do business with Israel, Cardin said. The legislation, which Cardin co-sponsored, outlaws American companies from responding to that request, because companies who chose not to participate would go on the "blacklist."
Cardin said the bill has been revised to make it clear that it is not attempting to control speech. Any individual or company that wishes to boycott either side is free to do so, he added.
A protester called Cardin's explanation "completely disingenuous."
"Everyone's entitled to your own views. You're not entitled to your own set of facts," Cardin said.
Cardin said he had multiple objections to the tax reform bill, the first being the "wonky" process that he said allows unintended consequences from not knowing what's in the bill. In a Nov. 13 statement, Cardin said "Democrats were shut out of the creation of this major bill."
He also claimed that "almost all" the relief from this bill goes to people with high incomes.
"Relief should go to middle-income families," he said. "We're losing the middle class in America and they're the ones who need the help."
Another of Cardin's points of contention with the bill was that a deficit is written into it.
"They don't even try to pay for this," he said of Republicans. "They claim we'll have a $1.5 trillion deficit. That means their children and grandchildren will have to pick up that $1.5 trillion of additional debt."
Despite his objections, Cardin said he would like to work with Republicans because the tax code "needs help."
"I don't know what more we can do before Congress action takes on gun safety legislation," Cardin said. "We see tragedies every week."
He proposed getting rid of military-style weapons, reciprocal treatment — in which a gun license in one state is valid in all states — and high-capacity magazines, as well as outlawing any modifications that could be used to turn a "recreation weapon" to one that could be used for mass shootings.
"Everything I am telling you we could do, I am either sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation in Washington to do this," he said.
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, a middle school teacher and the president of the Prince George's County Educators Association, asked that Cardin the security of schools in mind.
"Teachers are scared, mental illness is a real issue and it is affecting us as people are getting these high-powered magazines and coming in and killing children and going into churches," she said. "We're very concerned about that."