Sen. Rand Paul, who is pursuing a third term, probably didn’t expect protesters when he stopped in Republican Red Bardwell, almost as far west as Kentucky goes.
But a half dozen activists from Four Rivers Indivisible, a branch of the national organization, showed up at the Denver Hudgens Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5409, where the Bowling Green Republican was slated to speak Wednesday morning.
The sextet brought printed and hand-made signs challenging Paul’s vote against the PACT Act, which provides funding and greater access to health care for veterans who were made ill by exposure to toxic waste pits in Iraq and to Agent Orange, a chemical widely used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War.
“We wanted to make people aware of how he voted and why he said he opposed the bill,” said Leslie McColgin of Melber, a Four Rivers Indivisible co-leader.
The measure passed the Democratic-majority House and cleared the 50-50 Senate. Paul and 10 other Republican senators opposed it.
Paul said the legislation could end up costing “hundreds of millions of dollars” just when “the national debt is climbing over $30 trillion, and inflation is at a 40-year high.”
Added Kentucky's junior senator: “This bill puts our economy, though, at risk by creating presumptions of service connection for the most common ailments.” Paul also claimed that even asthma and high blood pressure could be covered under the bill.
Paul, who is not a military veteran, said he wasn’t against helping veterans. He proposed amending the PACT Act to cut foreign aid to fund it. “He knew it wouldn't pass and it didn’t” [on a 90-7 vote], McColgin said.
Paul’s videotaped remarks on the Senate floor went viral on social media, brewing a storm of criticism, including a sharp rebuke from Democrat Charles Booker, who wants the senator’s job.
“Rand Paul just announced that he opposes the PACT Act because veterans cannot prove they got health issues while serving in combat,” tweeted Booker, a former state representative from Louisville. “He is absolutely shameful, and has made a mockery of the office he occupies. I will defeat him.”
McColgin said her group doesn’t buy what Paul is selling.
“He voted for $2 trillion in tax cuts for the billionaires,” she said. “Maybe you aren’t going to be able to prove 100 percent that your brain tumor was caused by the burn pits, but there’s a pretty high likelihood that it was.”
Added McColgin, whose sister is a retired Marine major who has spent 20 years in the Corps: “A lot of us have connections to people in service. We send our soldiers off to fight, and we have an obligation to take care of them after they come home.”
She worries that many people have never heard of the PACT Act or that Paul tried to defeat it. She said that through door-to-door canvassing and voter registration, she’s discovered widespread unawareness of important legislation like the PACT Act and of the way Kentucky's senators and representatives vote on them.
“A lot of people have their own news sources these days,” said McColgin in a veiled reference to Fox News and the rest of the GOP-friendly right-wing media. “They’re in their own news silos.”
She said Indivisible stresses “voter education, voter engagement, and helping people to be well-informed participants in our democracy. It is also important to reach out to people where they are, like at this event.”
After visiting local officials in the courthouse, Paul was driven to the VFW hall. McColgin and her group waited in lawn chairs for about an hour before he showed up aboard a white Chevy SUV. A camera operator-reporter from Paducah's NBC-TV affiliate interviewed her. He was apparently the only local media present.
Paul looked straight ahead as he passed the half-dozen protestors who opted against going in the hall. “We accomplished what we came to do,” McColgin said. “We made people aware of how he voted.”
While they mainly focused on the PACT Act, the Four Rivers contingent had homemade signs protesting Paul’s votes against expanding coverage under the Tricare military insurance bill to include children in need of autism services.
En route to the hall, several people walked past the group: an elderly woman frowned and turned thumbs down; others voiced their disapproval. But nobody confronted them. Some, including the Bardwell police chief and the county Republican chair, stopped to talk.
Doubtless Paul expected ample adulation and softball questions from the crowd inside the hall. He collected more than 70 percent of the county vote in 2016. Trump garnered 80.5 percent in 2016 and nearly 82 percent in 2020.
But a Vietnam vet from Bardwell stopped and told McColgin that he planned to question Paul about his vote. He said he had a beef with Republican First District Rep. James Comer, too.
Had Paul stopped to greet them, McColgin said she’d have asked him, “Why did you think veterans weren’t worth spending this money on to help them with their health care problems?”