CHARLESTON, S.C. — Rep. Joe Cunningham spent his final day of a two-week district work period here Monday talking to local fishermen about adjusting to climate change and to a conservation group about banning offshore drilling — top issues for constituents of his coastline district.
Cunningham, the first Democrat to represent the 1st District in more than a quarter century, did not talk about the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, except to answer reporters’ questions about why he has not endorsed it. The constituents he interacted with Monday did not broach the topic with him, although some complimented him generally for how he’s navigating a political tightrope.
Back in Washington on Tuesday, as the media and three House committees continued to focus on witnesses being deposed in the impeachment inquiry, Cunningham introduced a bill designed to help the fishermen he spoke with in the district Monday. The measure — under the jurisdiction of the National Resources Committee he serves on — would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on efforts fishery management bodies have taken to adapt to climate change and any knowledge and funding gaps the groups have faced in their work.
Cunningham had touted the bill Monday as he toured Shem Creek in nearby Mount Pleasant, talking to fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the fish, shrimp and shellfish that inhabit the area. He followed that up with a roundtable discussion at the Charleston Aquarium with some of those commercial operators, as well as recreational fisherman and environmental activists, about the effect climate change was having on their businesses.
“Like I said in that meeting, I want to be a conduit for people here in the 1st District to Washington, D.C., so I can take their stories from Charleston directly to Washington, D.C., and express their concerns,” Cunningham told CQ Roll Call after the listening session.
The freshman congressman plans to home in on that feedback as he introduces his legislation, although it will likely not attract the kind of attention as the impeachment inquiry.
“We don’t have any problem staying focused. … Now, whether or not we’re able to break through the noise in Washington, D.C., that’s another story altogether,” he said.
It’s not like the topic of impeachment didn’t come up as Cunningham crisscrossed his district the last two weeks, talking about climate change, infrastructure and trade. But he said it’s not as big of an issue in eastern South Carolina as it is in Washington.
“People recognize that no one is above the law,” he said. “These allegations against the president are concerning, and a lot of people are deeply troubled by them. It’s just important that we get to the bottom of those and wherever the facts go, the law must follow.”
‘Deliberative and judicious’
Cunningham, one of only seven House Democrats who has not formally endorsed the impeachment inquiry, said he didn’t see the point.
“The fact is, that train has already left the station,” he said. “And so where I want to be, and where I’ve been along, is being as deliberate and judicious as possible. Absent sending our kids off to war, this is one of the most important decisions members of Congress can make. It’s a very sobering process, and it needs to be dealt with in that kind of manner.”
Acknowledging that part of his concern is that calling the House’s fact-finding effort an impeachment inquiry appears to prejudge the outcome, Cunningham, who is also a lawyer, said he wants to ensure the House is careful “and we don’t get due process backwards.” When asked if it was fair to characterize his position as being opposed to the inquiry, Cunningham did not object. But his answer suggested he plans to skip taking a stance on it altogether and just wait until he has to make a determination on impeachment itself.
“At the end of the day, as I said, I’m waiting for all the facts to come out. I’m waiting for all the cards to be laid on the table,” Cunningham said. “This isn’t a committee of my jurisdiction … so I’m not in the hearings day to day, hearing all the facts come out. I’m reading them in the newspaper, much like most everyone else is. And when the time comes to make a decision, then you can guaran-damn-tee that I’m going to be doing it based upon all the facts that have been presented and in a nonpartisan way.”
As the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees investigate the allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate one of his political rivals, Cunningham is more focused on work that falls under the jurisdiction of the Veterans’ Affairs and Natural Resources committees on which he serves.
The Veterans’ Affairs assignment makes sense, as his district has the largest veteran population in all of South Carolina. Talking about pinning ceremonies he held in his office last week, Cunningham said, “That’s probably one of the most fun parts of my job is commending our men and women for their service.”
Using his perch on Natural Resources, Cunningham was able to advance a bill through the House to ban offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas. He worked on the measure with Florida Republican Rep. Francis Rooney, who is also co-sponsoring his bill to study the impacts of climate change on fisheries.
Cunningham spoke about the offshore drilling ban measure, which passed the House last month 238-189, at a Conservation Voters of South Carolina event Monday evening.
“This was not just a victory of the Lowcountry,” he said, using the local term for the coastal region of South Carolina. “This is a victory for the entire country. And it sent a signal that our beaches and our coastline, our waterways are not for sale — that the people come first.”
Constituents say Cunningham’s opposition to offshore drilling is one of the main reasons he was able to win a district that backed Trump by 11 points in 2016. Trump had endorsed Republican Katie Arrington, who defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Sanford in a primary. Arrington had said during the primary that she supported Trump’s effort to lift a ban on offshore drilling, and her attempts to later walk back those comments fell short.
“People from all political stripes, all walks of life care about what happens to the coast,” Charleston Democrat David Ray said, noting that Cunningham has been a “strong advocate” against offshore drilling but that the House is only one half of the equation.
At the Conservation Voters of South Carolina event that Ray attended, Cunningham had urged the crowd to pressure the state’s two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, to work to get his bill passed in the Senate. Ray noted that several Republican mayors of coastline South Carolina towns backed Cunningham in 2018 because of his opposition to offshore drilling.
Ray said Cunningham has done a good job serving in a diverse district by talking to people from all political backgrounds about ways to find common ground and that approach can help ensure he stays in office.
Several Republicans have already entered the 2020 race to challenge Cunningham, who beat Arrington by less than 2 points last fall. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his reelection a Toss-up.
Alec Cooley, an independent from Mount Pleasant who voted for Cunningham, agreed that the 1st District has the potential to keep reelecting the Democrat.
Despite his personal belief that Trump should be impeached, Cooley complimented Cunningham for not having a knee-jerk reaction to the impeachment inquiry. He said his slow approach is an “appropriate” position given that impeachment “has such potential to tear the country apart.”
John Hadley, a Charleston Democrat, said Cunningham’s opposition to offshore drilling is one of the main reasons he voted for him, and his follow-through on that and other campaign promises was “more important” than his stance on impeachment.
With impeachment being “dead on arrival” in the Senate, Hadley said it’s effectively “a vote in spirit” and not a major issue for him — even though he disagrees with Cunningham not supporting the impeachment inquiry. He said he understands Cunningham taking the position he has because of the makeup of the district, and he doesn’t think the congressman will lose much support among Democrats if he doesn’t end up backing impeachment.
Those comments are consistent with what Cunningham described as feedback from constituents who say they’ve appreciated him keeping a “cool head” about impeachment.
“I’ve only been in this job for 10 months,” he said. “And I always thought the people, the politicians who jumped in and formed an opinion about anything and everything under the sun — it always got to me. … The facts should be in the driver’s seat, not the partisanship.”