Rep. Mark Meadows has long been a household name in western North Carolina, but his newfound notoriety outside the 11th District has not gone unnoticed by those back home.
“If you watch TV at all you know that our congressman is very much a mover and shaker in Washington, D.C.,” South Caldwell High School teacher Tony Crump said, as he introduced Meadows at a masonry competition Thursday for three area high schools.
Meadows has been on national cable news a lot more in the past few months. The chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus was one of the key figures in the debate over the health care bill that narrowly passed the House last week.
Health care, however, was barely a blip on Meadows’ radar Thursday as he visited a middle school in McDowell County, stopped by the masonry competition in Caldwell County and toured local businesses in Burke County.
The only time the topic even came up was when the congressman encountered a small group of protesters as he arrived for the business tour in Morganton. He took the time to stop and answer a few of their questions about the health care bill, explaining some of the misconceptions about its impact on pre-existing conditions and Medicaid.
One of the protesters asked about how a caesarean section, something she said was medically necessary to birth her daughter, could be considered a pre-existing condition. The bill stipulates there can be no discrimination based on gender, Meadows said, and that language prevents women from paying higher costs because of special care they need.
“I know there are people out there saying that, but it’s just not factual,” he said.
Louise White, a Democrat from Morganton, asked Meadows about the Republican leadership’s hesitation to launch an independent investigation into alleged ties between the Trump administration and Russia.
“I don’t know that there is a pushback on that,” Meadows said. He noted that fellow North Carolina lawmaker Sen. Richard M. Burr chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating the matter.
“Once that’s complete and if there is anything — I mean anything — that needs further investigation, you will find that I will be leading the charge, because it’s not about party for me,” Meadows said.
The congressman and protesters both observed the roughly 15-minute exchange remained civil overall. Meadows even bought some cookies from a local bakery he was visiting and gave them to the protesters, calling the gift a gesture “in the spirit of bipartisanship.”
But Meadows did not appear to win the support of any of the protesters, who acknowledged they were mostly Democrats.
“While the congressman talks a good game when he comes to town, there’s never very much notice that he’s going to come to town,” said Mark Vitrone, chairman of the Burke County Democratic Party. He helped organize the group of protesters outside the bakery Thursday to provide an opportunity to voice concerns with Meadows.
“The folks that are opposed to what he stands for were respectful and are intelligent people who are familiar with the bills and familiar with the issues and want answers,” Vitrone said. “And there are much more of them and much more motivated folks today that are willing to oppose some of these measures that are aimed at destroying American families.”
White said Meadows’ answer to her question about the Russia investigation was disappointing in that he didn’t even acknowledged that there was resistance among GOP leaders to opening an independent investigation.
“I think that is such a ‘duh’ issue that we need to be investigating,” she said. “There’s just been enough history in my lifetime that independent investigations get going and keep going and keep going and keep going way past the topic that started them. This is enough [of a] topic to make a chapter in a U.S. history book. This is not just another business as usual in Washington scandal.”
Other than the brief encounter with protesters, Meadows’ interactions with constituents on Thursday were jovial. He had a constant smile on his face as he shook hands with dozens of people and introduced himself casually as “Mark” — occasionally adding the “Meadows.”
The congressman first stopped at West McDowell Middle School, where student government leaders gave Meadows a tour of the school.
He poked his head in several classrooms, regaling some with stories of his youth. Speaking to a math class he said he had wanted to be a math professor before going to school to study meteorology. Meadows often refers to himself as a “numbers guy.”
Between the middle school visit and the masonry competition, Meadows made an impromptu trip to JD’s Smokehouse in Rutherford College, where he ran into a lot of familiar faces.
Johnnie Carswell, vice chairman of the Burke County Board of Commissioners, was among those having lunch at JD’s. The Republican said citizens of the 11 District know they can get in touch with Meadows and that in his nearly four and a half years in Congress, Meadows “hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from.”
Carswell said there’s a lot of turmoil in Washington right now that he wishes would die down, but that Meadows doesn’t get distracted from core mission to serve his constituents.
“He does have the people at heart, and we do appreciate it,” he said.
Caldwell County Commissioner Jeff Branch, who was at the masonry competition, said Meadows does a good job representing western North Carolina’s interests in Washington but he doesn’t hide there; he maintains an active presence at events throughout the community.
“This is a real conservative area. He’s doing what the people ask,” he said. “He’s representing his constituents the way they want to be represented.”
‘Talk of the town’
While Meadows maintains those core connections in North Carolina, his star is rising in Washington. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Meadows’ work on the health care bill “is the talk of the town,” Branch said.
While there have been some complaints, like those who felt Meadows let President Trump down on the first iteration of the health care bill, Branch said the majority of the comments have been complimentary of Meadows standing up for conservative beliefs.
Meadows has always shown an aptitude and passion on issues of importance to conservatives, said longtime supporters like Crump, the high school teacher, and John Thuss. Both were among a small group of Republicans in Caldwell County who met with Meadows when he was exploring running for Congress.
At that initial meeting, the attendees threw out question after question and Meadows had all the right answers, Thuss said.
“He was the most knowledgeable, informed first-time candidate that I’ve met for any office,” he said.
Thuss said he could see Meadows running for higher office one day, perhaps governor or U.S. senator, but not jockeying for a leadership position in the House.
“I do think he’s destined for greatness, I really do,” Thuss said. “There were folks who were trying to draft him for speaker once upon a time, but I think that would have cramped his style. He’s got the freedom to pick and choose and do what he thinks is really important and not have to deal with all the minutia that the speaker has to deal with.”