As Congressman Tom O’Halleran conferred with his colleges before the certification of President-Elect Joe Biden’s electoral college win, he heard the unsettling discord of gunshots, windows breaking and insurrectionists banging on the Capitol doors in attempts to upend the historically peaceful transfer of power and embodiment of democracy in the United States.
The Democrat representing Arizona’s District 1—which includes Oro Valley and Marana—joined his fellow lawmakers in reaching for gas masks under their seats and leaving their chambers as Capitol police rushed them out with warnings a mob was just seconds behind them.
“They started banging on the doors, particularly on the third floor, to try to get into the gallery,” O’Halleran said. “At one point, about 20 minutes after things started, we were asked to leave the chambers orderly.
Although members of congress survived the riot, five lives were taken as Capitol police became overwhelmed by rioters who used the Capitol’s fencing as ladders to breach it.
“[The Capitol police] were overwhelmed quickly. The windows were smashed, and people got in through there,” O’Halleran said. “The weapons that were brought and the ability to have baseball bats and other things within that building structure, that should never happen.”
Congress returned to the Capitol the night of Jan. 6 to certify Biden’s win. A week later, O’Halleran was part of the 232 to 197 vote to impeach President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the violence.
“Nobody likes to be in that position. We would rather have our country not have to go through indictments,” O’Halleran said. “But you also would rather have somebody that was going to be honest with the American people and not lie on a consistent basis. But more importantly on that day, at that time, and leading up to it, there’s plenty of proof that he wanted people in Washington, he wanted them to react, he had made statements to that effect...To go there and make sure that we weren’t allowed to vote on a certification of elections. That’s just not what our great American government and great country should be about.”
As Trump leaves office on Jan. 20, the Arizona congressman won’t just remember his last four years under the presidency for one of the most terrifying days he spent doing his job, but for the repeated lies that stained Trump’s administration.
“I’ll remember [the presidency] from the standpoint of the inability of the president to tell the American people the truth...My speech on the floor after the attempted insurrection was that we have to realize as government officials, as elected representatives of people, we need to tell the truth,” O’Halleran said. “There is and continues to be way too much political infighting in our government, and that has to stop. We have to move forward as a country, and I’m concerned about that.
As O’Halleran moves into the next two years of representing Arizona’s District 1 (which also includes Flagstaff, northern Arizona Native American reservations and much of rural eastern Arizona) he hopes the divisiveness stoked over the past four years will simmer down to a bipartisan state of compromise.
“As people in Arizona know, I work across the aisle all the time. It’s gotten harder in some respects, and within certain groups, it’s been easier. We have to find this level of being able to work together on the priorities that our nation faces,” he said.
O'Halleran's priorities in the next legislative session
The representative’s first priority as a member of the 117th U.S. congress is addressing COVID-19, which Arizona currently holds the highest transmission rate for in the entire nation.
However, despite multiple attempts to communicate with Gov. Doug Ducey, O’Halleran hasn’t received a response.
“It’s very frustrating when you have a lack of communication from the governor of a state to the level that it is right now. I have no explanation of why that communication can’t be made. Early on, they had a process where our staff were able to talk to his senior staff and it worked out well, then he stopped it,” O’Halleran said. “It doesn’t look good that we have that big dark blue on our state on the maps right now that people are not getting inoculated enough.”
While O’Halleran’s communicated with local jurisdictions on the spread of COVID-19 in the rural and tribal areas he represents, he feels a lack of transparency from the state is barring important information about how citizens are receiving vaccines.
“We all want to know what’s happening in rural America, are vaccinations getting out there in the numbers that they should be getting out? Of course, we’ve seen the tragedy on our tribal lands. We are in constant communication with the Indian Health Services, I can call them up at any moment and be able to schedule a meeting and get that meeting quickly,” he said. “But I can’t get our own governor to say, ‘Come on down and meet with me and I want you to let you know what’s going on in Arizona.
O’Halleran’s second priority is restoring the economy that’s been obliterated by the coronavirus.
“We have to get to the bottom lines of how we move America forward. We have competitors all over the world, we have to be in front of them,” O’Halleran said. “That’ll help our families to have an economy. We have small businesses being decimated, even with the help that we’ve been able to get out there. We have to bring them back.”
The congressman feels the ballooning federal deficit is imperative to address sooner than later.
“Revenues will go up, the first point is we bring our economy back. I haven’t heard a reasonable reason why we should not be investing in saving our economy and the saving of our people,"O’Halleran said. “Luckily for us, interest rates are low. But it’s going to be a huge burden in the future.”
He also feels addressing infrastructure is key to overcoming the issues exacerbated by the pandemic, although he estimates the price tag for fixing the nation’s roads and bridges could be as high as $5 trillion and that figure doesn’t include other infrastructure needs such as aging water lines and sewer pipes.
I've been watching these same issues for decades, but they’ve only gotten worse,” he said.
Ultimately, O’Halleran said he and his colleagues have to get past the partisan gridlock and fighting that has paralyzed Washington.
“We are not going in the right direction right now, not just because of this administration, but because of our tendency to not say to the American people, here’s our priorities, and we have to address those priorities,” he said. “People elect representatives to do the representing of them first. Not politics, not making statements that’ll get us reelected, but making sure we care for the people that we represent. We have to work together…. It’s the United States of America, and we have to bring that back.