FARMINGTON — As shutdown woes and border wall debates dominated his first town hall meeting Tuesday, Sen. Mitt Romney emphasized the need to breach political divides and for Republicans and Democrats to listen to each other.
"We've become so divided … we don't even get the same news or the same facts," Romney told a packed house at the Davis County building in Farmington.
As the government shutdown crept into its 32nd day, residents showed up to share their thoughts and concerns with Romney, R-Utah, during an oftentimes emotional meeting. Nearly 300 people filled the County Commission chambers and two overflow rooms.
Romney opened the meeting by telling the crowd he was there to listen to what they had to say.
He then asked the residents if they think he's "too tough" on President Donald Trump or "not tough enough." The majority of residents in the room raised their hands for the second option.
While topics including education and Russia were brought up, the majority of comments and questions focused on the federal government shutdown that has now topped 31 days and the contested border wall.
One woman's voice rose as she said that she worked for the state for many years and "they managed never to use the state workers as hostages."
"How is that OK now, and why over a wall that most of the people do not believe in, and what are you going to do?" the woman asked the senator.
Another woman said she and other members of her family work for the government and have been affected by the shutdown, urging Romney to help end the impasse.
Romney said his perspective has been "illuminated" over the past few weeks, agreeing "this is not the way to get things done."
Throughout the meeting, he said though he agrees with building a stronger southern border, he disagrees with the shutdown and will do what he can to help end it.
He said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has set up two votes that could potentially end the shutdown. The votes will take place on Thursday.
Of people required to work without pay during shutdown, Romney said, "Some people can't afford the gas to show up." In his opinion, "it is wrong for people to be told you have to show up to work, but we're not paying you," he said.
The senator said he will support legislation proposed by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., that would require the government to pay those who have to work during the shutdown. But he said he believes Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won't agree with the measure because "they want pressure to build."
While many commenters said they oppose the wall and the shutdown, a few emphasized the need for it and asked Romney to help get it built.
One woman expressed frustration about representatives and senators who vote to give "so much money … to these other countries in the world."
"But they won't give us money to protect our country, and I feel like if you don't have a wall, if you don't have some kind of a border, you don't have a country," the woman said, pointing to what she called an "invasion" from Honduras and drawing boos from the crowd.
Romney responded, "Sometimes we send money to countries to save the cost of having to be there ourselves. … In other places, there are humanitarian needs."
"Most people that have come here illegally came here legally in the first place. They got here legally and stayed. So either as tourists, or with a student visa, or other kinds of visas, and they stayed. And who can blame them? This is the greatest country on Earth," the senator explained.
However, he said the country needs a system that can track those who stay illegally and penalize employers if they hire them. "A fence is going to be helpful, but it doesn't begin to solve the problem of illegal immigration."
"We want them coming in (legally), and that is something I want to be able to protect," Romney said.
While the meeting focused on serious issues, there were some lighter moments. Even before the meeting began, enthusiasm was high among those waiting to hear Romney speak. Nearly an hour early, a long line of residents began forming down the hall. Most said they wanted to talk to the senator about the shutdown and wall.
"I wanted to see what Mitt Romney had to say about trying to get the country back on the right track," Greg Luker, waiting in line for the doors to the conference room to open, told the Deseret News.
"I think the direction it's going now is not good for the country at all and I want to see if he thinks the Republicans are ever going to do anything about the deficit, and whether he thinks he can reform Trump or whether he should kick him out," Luker added.
Reed Bitter said he "just wanted to hear Romney" speak. But he said the main issue concerning him during Tuesday's meeting is that the government should "build the wall, mainly," Bitter said.
At the end of the hour-long meeting, Romney was met with applause as he thanked the crowd for their questions and comments.71 comments on this story
When asked if he was surprised by the turnout, Romney's chief of staff and campaign manager Matt Waldrip, said, "We would've loved to have had that kind of turnout during the campaign."
He said Romney's staff was pleased and excited by the crowd and its engagement.
After the meeting, one woman told the Deseret News, "I felt heard by him." She asked that she not be identified because she works for the federal government and was concerned about losing her job.
"Do I think he's on my side? No. But I think he picked up pieces of what I said and will use them, I hope," said the Ogden woman.
Contributing: Matthew Brown