PHOTO: Catherine Moore/W.Va. Solidarity Network/flickr /cc

Who's Afraid of Town Halls?

Before Trump, town halls were hardly newsworthy. But enraged voters are sounding off on their lawmakers like Florida Rep. Ted Yoho—and giving them a crash course in civics.
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Congress is right in the middle of its two-week recess, and the public is not letting Republicans forget it. From South Carolina where constituents chanted “you lie” to GOP Rep. Joe Wilson, mimicking his shout down of Obama in 2009 to California where GOP Rep. Tom McClintock fled from anti-Trump protesters in February and pleaded with them this week to be civil and respectful, Republicans in particular are bracing for, receiving, or running away from the backlash of their decisions.

In Colorado, five-term centrist Rep. Mike Coffman, who voted for Trump’s health-care bill, got pummeled by both Democrats and Republicans. Coffman sits in a precarious position between Trump and liberals, satisfying no one yet unwilling to put his eggs in one basket.

There are still scores of town halls taking place, and the interested public is lining up to get in. One of the representatives brave enough to face his constituents also holds the rare distinction of being a Tea Partier in one of the few blue dots in Florida: Gainesville’s Ted Yoho, who held a town hall last Monday night.

While no shoes were thrown and no fists caught, good old boy Ted, a veterinarian and country agriculture buff, experienced a side of his constituency he wasn’t expecting—a side Senator Marco Rubio has cried about before. His voters are enraged and they'd come to tell him so, and they have questions. Lots of them.

It’s a clash of wills in the red South, and all eyes are on the swing states as Democrats threaten to unseat long-held Republican strongholds. While Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) dodge their voters, Yoho went before his in Florida armed with a quirky smile and a patronizing tone, unused to answering questions not suited to his policy making—policy that deemed President Trump’s bill to repeal Obamacare as being too lenient.

Donald Trump has tweeted that angered local groups who show up to town halls had been “organized” to be there—implying that they’d been paid. But many in the crowd of nearly 500 that gathered to tell Yoho about what was on their minds, from health care to education to the environment, came to make their message clear, that they were their on their own volition and fully enraged, wearing T-shirts that read “not paid.” Yoho answered to boos and hecklers. His hometown wasn’t having it.

“What about the people?!” A lone woman’s voice rose in a rare quiet moment, after the congressman decried any support of universal health care. Hundreds of pink signs reading “DISAGREE” waved in the air when he stated that human activity is not a driving factor in climate change. In Florida, we are watching our coastline disappear and our summer days creep up to 110-degrees.

Although Florida is at best a purple state with residents running the gamut from President Trump’s conservative agenda to Bernie Sanders–esque socialist Democratic beliefs, here in Gainesville, a city of 150,000, the resistance faction runs deep.

This is what happens when a Tea Party Republican holds a town hall meeting in the deep blue center of his constituency. Yoho is serving his third term as Representative for North Central Florida’s 3rd Congressional District.

On the very day an elementary school teacher and two elementary-school students were shot—two fatally—at their school in San Bernadino California, a mother with Moms Demand Action T-shirt stood at the front of the room at Lincoln Middle School and asked about Yoho’s stance on the legalization of gun silencers available to all gun owners with no background checks, which is currently a bill in Congress.

“My job is to uphold the Constitution,” Yoho said. “If you don’t like those kind of implements in Alachua County, in the state of Florida, go to your local legislators.”

“You are that!” the crowd shouted.

“I stand with Moms Demand Action, and the majority of Americans and gun owners, in my belief that common sense gun safety measures go hand-in-hand with respect for the Second Amendment,” said Katie Browder, the data leader for the group, whose sister was shot and killed by her partner in 2012. “We are not anti-gun. In fact, many of our supporters are gun owners. We are anti-gun violence. We want to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, ensure that common sense gun laws are passed and promote safe gun storage”

Town halls used to be a calm, glad-handing affair where Congress-people could meet with multiple constituents at once and discuss their concerns. But these days, Republican legislators are loath to connect to their communities. They say they’re bombarded with negativity from people who aren’t willing to work with them, that they were voted in on certain platforms and they are required to adhere to those platforms for their voters.

But the residents are the voters and many all over the country, both Republican and Democrat, are feeling angered at the decisions their government is making for them. As such, these meetings have gone from jovial affairs to post-mortems fraught with tension. And Yoho and others in Congress just aren’t used to that.

“I would say most of the room is oppositional because the opposition is more upset, regardless of side” said Joy Pitts, who leads Gainesville’s chapter of Indivisible, a progressive anti-Trump movement organized in the wake of the election. “It's different to be Republican or to be a Tea Party Republican.”

“Gainesville has free lunch and breakfast for the kids,” added Amanda Welch, the chapter’s editorial lead. “The money comes from the grants from the USDA, which could be slashed. Even if you are Republican, you may still believe in feeding children.”

On health care, Yoho is immovable. As one of the Freedom Caucus members who rejected President Trump’s health care plan on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough, Yoho firmly believes that the ACA feeds into Medicaid, which he falsely claims has been proven to have the worst outcomes in the industrialized world.

Though Yoho supporters were few, many of them were business owners who agreed with the representative’s stance on health care. I spoke with a pair who wished to remain anonymous as they pummeled universal health care as ineffective and broken. “The bottom line is that people have to take some personal responsibility,” the man said, his wife nodding along.

As we stood in a line stretching hundreds of yards from the town hall meeting’s doors and listened to women in pussy caps singing resistance hymns, I told them that as a freelance writer, should my husband lose his job, I had no option but the marketplace, and as a 34-year-old mother with a genetic mutation that predestines me to contract breast cancer, without the safeties now in place, I would be uninsurable.

“Well, you’re different,” they said, sympathizing. I’m always the “different” one, the one who deserves to be caught in the safety net. Except I’m not different at all. Nearly 12 million people nationwide will lose their coverage if the ACA is repealed. Millions more will be shuttled into expensive sick-person pools, and not be able to afford treatment.

Meanwhile, more than more than 28,000 people in Yoho’s district depend on the Affordable Healthcare Act for insurance—that’s a full 20 percent of his constituency.

“I’m mainly concerned about health care because I’ve only worked at small businesses in Gainesville, and I always have to get my own insurance even though I have a master's in landscape architecture,” said resident Kim Heiss. She’s only become politically engaged since Donald Trump got elected, a pattern seen across the country.

To be sure, the majority of the 500 people in attendance were new to political activism, and looking for ways to take on some of the civic responsibility of the nation. The problem they face is not being heard.

“The Republicans seem to believe they won, so they make the rules and policy now,” said Andrea Bereit, a longtime Gainesville resident and legal immigrant from Germany. “I can only think that these representatives have not had much opposition from the type constituent in the past that demanded a detailed justification of actions.”

Indeed, when Kristen Reaver, a Gainseville resident with a graduate degree in environmental science, asked if Yoho believed climate change to be a result of human activities, the representative cut her off with a brusque “no.”

“Please explain why your personal opinion, as a non-expert in the field, is more valuable than the evidence of 97 percent of scientists,” Reaver continued. Her follow-up received a standing ovation.

Florida faces peril at the hands of climate change as several environmental reports list rising temperatures and sea levels, threatening our businesses, our tourism, and our way of life. And yet our state government has for years eschewed making changes to stymy the problem. In fact, Governor Rick Scott had unofficially banned the term climate change years ago. Now, the federal-level attacks are matching the local attacks—at least within the government itself.

“It seems like, in the past couple of months, scientists have become the enemy,” Reaver said. “It’s frustrating and irritating, and as a science community, we don’t really understand why Trump has this war on science.”

As proven by these town hall meetings across the country, the voters are growing frustrated with the policies laid out before them. And for Reaver, the constituents matter more than the Congress itself.

“I wasn’t expecting the response that I got from the crowd,” she said of the cheers. “I’m glad it’s resonating with the people. They find climate change really important, and maybe now they’ll step up and challenge these policy changes more.”

For United States residents, perhaps the answer won’t be found in the present leader at the front of the room, but in the throngs of people facing them, looking toward the future.