BEMIDJI — A former congressman and candidate for U.S. Senate held an event in Bemidji on Thursday to meet with voters and discuss the refugee topic that's been circulating in the community for most of January.
Jason Lewis, who's running on the Republican side to unseat Sen. Tina Smith, held the event where he spoke about his platform, with a focus on the refugee topic, and took questions.
The topic stems from a Beltrami County Board meeting on Jan. 7 where commissioners voted 3-2 to opt out of the United States Refugee Resettlement Program. The action was authorized by an executive order from President Trump, which gave state and local government units the authority to either opt in or out of the program.
Since Jan. 7, the action has become temporarily null after an injunction was issued in federal court halting the executive order. However, the subject has remained a hot-button issue locally.
The Jan. 7 meeting had a crowd of about 200, while the county's meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21, attracted nearly 150 people. Lewis' event also had a big crowd, with roughly 100 people on both sides of the issue turning out to hear him speak.
Following the county's vote earlier this month, Lewis said he supported the decision in a press release. On Thursday, he reiterated his backing of the 3-2 vote.
"What is wrong with a county, in a free country and a free state, saying 'we're concerned about costs and we're concerned about this fiscally, so let's take a pause?'" Lewis said. "That's why I'm here. I wanted to make certain that you're not alone. That you're good people just trying to do what's best for your community."
As part of his comments, Lewis said a key part of his support for the county was the local control in the decision.
"What is so scary about local control, when the people clamoring the loudest for sanctuary cities on the basis of local control want nothing to do with an executive order on refugee local control," Lewis said.
During the question-and-answer part of the event, an attendee asked the candidate about the possibility of changing laws to not allow Muslims to hold office, to which Lewis said, "I would not be in favor of that. Religious affiliation can never be a test for public office. We can do our battles on what it means to preserve what it means to be an American without getting into a religious test."
Before running for the Senate seat, Lewis, a former radio host, served a term in the United States House of Representatives, winning in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District in 2016. In 2018 he was defeated by Rep. Angie Craig.
On the GOP side of the 2020 race, Lewis is competing with assistant North Central University professor Rob Barrett Jr.