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Prescott students press the issues with U.S. Sen. Johnson

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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks to about 120 people — mostly students — last week at Prescott High School. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks to about 120 people — mostly students — last week at Prescott High School. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

PRESCOTT — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson laid out the ground rules immediately.

"Anything's fair game," he told students last week during a question-and-answer presentation at Prescott High School.

Students attending the event took him up on it — and didn't lob softballs. Climate change, school vouchers and the bombing in Syria were among questions directed Tuesday, April 11, at Johnson, a Republican who chairs the U.S. Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The two-term U.S. senator from Oshkosh spent about an hour fielding questions from students and a few members of the public after being invited by PHS teacher Jeff Ryan. The event was the second time Johnson accepted Ryan's invitation to speak at the school.

"I really do appreciate the opportunity to come to high schools or when students come to Washington, D.C.," to learn about the political process, Johnson said before attempting to soften the image some might hold of federal lawmakers. "We're just people. I'm a son, and I'm a husband, I'm a father and I'm a grandfather. Just a normal guy."

A normal guy with some heavy responsibilities.

Johnson said he had advised President Barack Obama to strike against Syria — a call he said went unheeded by the previous administration and other nations.

So when President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike earlier this month on an airfield in the Middle Eastern nation in response to reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had gassed his own citizens, Johnson applauded the military action.

Trump acted "swiftly and decisively," the senator told students.

"The civilized world must be awakened to the genocide that is occurring in Syria and need to come together as a coalition of the willing to stop the human suffering," Johnson said.

Prescott senior Joe Carpenter was among several students with questions for Johnson. Carpenter asked the senator to explain his support for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime champion of school vouchers.

Johnson said DeVos "represents a movement" seeking to provide families more choices for where their students attend school — public or private. And while Prescott likely provides its students an excellent education, Johnson said, the same can't be said for Milwaukee public schools.

"From my standpoint, Betsy DeVos is dedicated to making sure every child has access to a quality education and that's not true right now in America," Johnson said.

Senior Ian Lapcinski probed Johnson's opinions on climate change, an issue the senator said he doesn't deny. Still, Johnson said he doesn't see cause for alarm.

"I'm skeptical that we can do much about it," he said, arguing that billions of dollars in funding wouldn't have kept Ice Age glaciers from receding.

Lapcinski said that while he disagreed with Johnson's conclusions, he appreciated the senator's willingness to address the question.

"We may disagree, but I still enjoyed the opportunity," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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