PORT ANGELES — Port Angeles High School students plied U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer with questions about the future under President Donald Trump.
The 43-year-old congressman, a Port Angeles High School Class of 1992 graduate, returned to his teenage stomping grounds Monday to address students.
Kilmer, the former PAHS Associated Student Body president, now represents the 430,000 voters who live in Washington state’s 6th District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Kilmer spoke for more than an hour with 56 high school students who are in the school district leadership program, participate in the business-oriented DECA and Future Business Leaders of America, or are Key Club members.
He told them to take charge of their dreams instead of worrying about a dysfunctional Washington, D.C.
“Don’t agonize; organize,” Kilmer told the teenagers, urging them to get involved in advocacy groups if that’s how they felt.
He hosted a town hall meeting in Sequim on Monday night before his scheduled flight Tuesday back to Washington, D.C.
It was the Gig Harbor Democrat’s first visit as a member of Congress to the high school he had graduated from, in the town he grew up in, before he went to Princeton University, became a Washington state legislator and then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is serving his third two-year term.
Kilmer was recently named vice ranking member of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, which sets government expenditures.
Kilmer called himself a high school nerd who was in the orchestra, played tennis poorly, participated in Knowledge Bowl — and as an adult still ticked off several of his teachers’ names more than two decades after he graduated.
“I loved high school, I really did,” he said.
At least one student among those who were clustered together at small round tables in the school library feared for their future.
The trepidation was centered around Trump.
“Many people say he’s mentally unstable,” freshman Amilie Atwater said.
“I and my family are worried.
“What can we do to survive the next four years?”
These are trying times for Kilmer, too, he told the girl.
“My predisposition is to put a hand out and say everything’s going to be OK, but I’m not sure I can say that now,” he told Amilie.
Kilmer, standing near a high school Gay Straight Alliance poster that implored “Don’t fear queer,” said he couldn’t be as reassuring as he wanted to be to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender constituents he recently spoke with at the Tacoma Rainbow Center.
They were “really scared” about discrimination, Kilmer said.
Nor, he said, could he be encouraging to Bremerton “Dreamers” — illegal immigrants brought into the U.S. as children — who were concerned about getting deported.
Even so, the word “worry” is not part of Kilmer’s vocabulary, he said.
“There’s no value expending your mental energy wringing your hands or shaking your fist.
“The approach I have taken is, if there is something you are concerned about or you have uncertainty about it, you are empowered as leaders to go and do something about it.”
Another student, junior Senator Atwater, Amilie’s brother, whose parents own a retail marijuana store, said he was “panicking” about Trump administration officials suggesting they might step up enforcement activities against recreational marijuana use.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration “turned a blind eye” to states where recreational pot is legal despite that being against federal law, Kilmer said.
“We don’t know what the new administration is going to do,” Kilmer said.
He said he’s hoping the federal government does not “pull the rug” out of legal businesses such as those owned by the teen’s parents.
One student’s question echoed Trump’s signature slogan.
“What should we do to help make America great again?” senior Noah McGoff asked.
“Think about what you care about and make your impact that way,” Kilmer advised.
Senior Claire Fritschler asked Kilmer about new Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ advocacy of charter schools over public schools.
Kilmer, whose parents were Port Angeles School District teachers, said he is concerned about much-needed funds intended for public schools going to private and parochial schools.
Kilmer; his wife, Jennifer; and their daughters, Tess, 7, and Sophie, 10, were excited to visit President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
“Five minutes in, my daughter Tess said, ‘I’ve got a question for you,’ ” Kilmer recalled.
“As a parent, my first thought is, ‘Oh no, what’s my daughter going to say to the leader of the free world?’
“ ‘Do you ever sit in this office and kind of do an evil laugh?’ ” Kilmer said the 7-year-old asked Obama.
Kilmer said Obama told the girl: “ ‘I can’t say that I do that, but there are people who think I do that.’ ”
Before Kilmer’s family left the White House, they had their picture taken with the president.
It was a one-two-three-smile moment that Kilmer won’t forget.
“Before three, the president goes ‘Mwahahaha,’ ” he recalled, causing his daughters to break out in laughter for a great photo.
“That was a pretty good day.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].