Craig U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said politics shouldn't be about memorized answers and party loyalty.
Bennet, D-Colo., spoke and answered questions Tuesday at Craig City Hall as part of his first tour through the Western Slope as a federal senator. He was appointed to fill Sen. Ken Salazar's position in January after the former senator took a cabinet position with President Barack Obama.
Many of the roughly 50 residents who attended the forum said they were concerned about the direction of the federal government.
Craig City Councilor Ray Beck warned that too strict an adherence to promoting green energy would not only hurt the traditional energy industry - such as the coal mines and power plant that surround Craig - but also hurt every resident who pays an electricity bill.
Moffat County resident Doug Wellman said the congressional seniority in Washington, D.C., wields too much power and invariably uses its authority to promote special interests.
County resident Patrick Germond said politicians never give straight answers. His statement came after the senator said he couldn't say for sure whether he would support a ban on assault weapons.
Bennet said the public is right to be cynical - though in the case of a hypothetical assault weapons ban, he said he thought it was better to be honest about his uncertainty than make a promise he might not keep.
Still, the government has not done a good job of using politics for the benefit of its citizens, Bennet said.
"No one with a blank sheet of paper would design the system we have right now," he said.
If Congress would step back from the bigger issues of the day - such as immigration and health care - its members might realize that most of them share similar principles. From there, it's an easier path to developing plans to solve issues as best they can.
"We need a lot more of that ethic in the nation's capitol than we've had in a long, long time," Bennet said, adding he isn't pessimistic that the government can change the way it works.
"I actually believe the American people have the capacity to be able to say we want it a different way," he said.
Several residents at the meeting said that is precisely what they want, from tax reform, to open politicians, to a government that listens to the people.
"I'm very upset with my government," said Lynne Herring, a local business owner. "I think my government, the Republicans and the Democrats, are diametrically opposed to the people."
Herring said she understands some of the reasoning behind certain government programs, such as health care, which she said is in "bad disarray."
However, she cannot support a move to a "universal and socialist" health care system and gave an example why.
Herring recently needed an MRI.
She said an employee at the clinic she visited told her she would have to pay $1,500 upfront, even though Herring has medical insurance. The same employee told her an illegal immigrant with no insurance wouldn't have to pay anything, Herring added.
Why should she be forced to subsidize the uninsured, and why is the Obama administration proposing new ways for 12 million illegal immigrants to become citizens when the country can't afford health care for the people here legally, Herring asked.
Those are large issues, Bennet said, and they require large solutions, likely outside the normal political dialogue.
"My view is our politics has been much too small about things that need to be changed," he said.
On health care, there needs to be a broad reform that covers more of the uninsured or else medical providers will continue to lean on the insured to cover their costs, Bennet said.
He added that most uninsured Americans are working people who pay taxes, but he could not say how many are illegal immigrants.
With immigration reform, Bennet said he does not agree with the idea that all illegal immigrants have broken the law and should not be allowed to earn citizenship.
The current situation is untenable for law enforcement, schools and doctors, he said.
Since there isn't much political will to spend the money it would cost to deport 12 million people, something else has to be done.
The borders must be secured, Bennet said, but people here already should get a chance to earn residency and become part of the country instead of "living in the shadows."
It has been unfortunate that neither political party has been able to present a solution to either health care or immigration, he added.
Former Craig Mayor Dave DeRose said he might know why.
"I realize there are compromises to make in all politics : but everything we do becomes a political football," he said, describing how the parties each take turns with an issue and never come to a common sense solution. "Let's fix a problem."
Bennet said he agreed, but it will take more than Congress to overcome the country's fixation on political allegiance.
He hopes to be different, though.
"From my point of view, everything should be on the table to achieve our principles," Bennet said. "My litmus test is not a litmus test about political orthodoxy. My litmus test is can I go back to an average family and explain to them what I've done?"