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Friday, February 10, 2017
ANTI-Trump, PRO-Obamacare Crowds Target GOP Lawmakers’ Town Halls
Rep. Jason Chaffetz booed and heckled in home state
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah—A crowd of about a thousand people, dominated by opponents of President Donald Trump’s agenda, packed a raucous town-hall event here in the latest example of increased activism targeting Republican members of Congress.
Five-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz won his most recent race by nearly 50 points, but returned to his home district to find himself confronted by a sign-waving, heckling and booing chorus.
Town halls held by Republican Reps. Diane Black of Tennessee and Justin Amash of Michigan on Thursday also drew big numbers and tough questions. At earlier home-district events in states including Colorado, Florida, Virginia and California, GOP House members were surprised by rowdy crowds, often declaring support for the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have vowed to repeal.
The protests, some organized by activists, recall the opposition early in the Obama administration to that same Democratic-sponsored health-care law. That gave birth to the tea-party movement—a parallel not lost on some protesters.
“This is our version of the tea party, and we’re not going away,” said Chris Brunelli, a Salt Lake City resident at the Chaffetz event, held at a high school in this upscale suburb.
Republican congressional leaders have encouraged members to listen—but also to remember the mandate they say voters delivered to the party last November.
“They’re people who are upset with the outcome of the presidential election and are going to express their unhappiness in this fashion,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said of the protesters. “And that’s their right.”
But Sen. Thune, No. 3 in the Senate Republican leadership, added, “I don’t think that in any way ought to influence our members. There’s a center-right coalition of people out there who want to see us get results for the American people.”
The packed crowd for Mr. Chaffetz’s event heckled the fire marshal, urging him to let more people in, as the hundreds denied entry over capacity and security concerns protested outside. Those inside peppered the congressman with questions about public lands, education and Mr. Trump’s agenda, as well as about why—as head of a House committee charged with investigating waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch—he isn’t investigating the president more aggressively.
“Hold on, I’m trying to answer the question,” Mr. Chaffetz said over repeated interruptions.
Mr. Chaffetz encouraged constructive conversation, saying he thinks the vitriol in politics is getting out of control.
‘I don’t think that in any way ought to influence our members.’
—Sen. John Thune (R, S.D.)
“I’m here. I’m trying to have this dialogue with you, OK? OK. I am answering your question,” he said at one point during a question on the deteriorating political environment.
What Mr. Chaffetz faced in his GOP-leaning district, which stretches from the Salt Lake City suburbs to Utah’s rural southeast, could be a preview of what other members of Congress will see during recesses in the spring.
“It really is a movement now,” said Randee Levine, who also was at the Chaffetz event. “Because of Donald Trump in the presidency, it has constellated and motivated all the progressives and the moderates to come out and show their disappointment.”
The U.S. Capitol Police reported 55 arrests last month for “disruption of Congress’’—the charge most protesters face when taken into custody—up from nine in all of 2016. Arrests do tend to spike during high-profile hearings, such as the confirmations of Mr. Trump’s cabinet.
‘I think town halls have been an effective method in bringing concerns to elected representatives since the beginning of American democracy.’
—Former Hillary Clinton aide Jimmy Dahman
Trips home by members of Congress during coming recesses—a week later this month and much of April—will offer progressive activists a chance to test their organizing mettle. Two groups, Organizing for Action and Indivisibles, held an online seminar on Thursday on organizing for events this month in districts across the country. Activists associated with both groups helped organize turnout at Mr. Chaffetz’s event.
Progressive political consultants have been hosting seminars on organizing protests and writing guides to being heard by Congress. Jimmy Dahman, a former aide to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, recently launched the Town Hall Project, circulating lists of public events where members of Congress can be found.
“I think town halls have been an effective method in bringing concerns to elected representatives since the beginning of American democracy,” said Mr. Dahman in an interview.
Some lawmakers whose events have been swarmed by angry constituents say they have a duty to listen.
“What I did was, I listened, I heard their stories,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who was surrounded at a town hall last week by supporters of the Affordable Care Act worried about how repeal could affect them. “They were genuine and sincere stories. I felt for the people and I’m going to take their voice to Washington with me.”