Photo source: wuwf.edu
Members of Congress have been in their home districts for a congressional recess, dubbed by some as a “Resistance Recess” due to the liberal protests many Republican lawmakers have been facing at their Town Hall meetings. In the 1st Congressional District of West Florida’s panhandle region, freshman Congressman Matt Gaetz, who was swept into office in 2016 on a platform including support for “Donald Trump’s bold conservative agenda”, held an “Open Gaetz” Town Hall meeting on February 23, 2017 in the City of Pace, located at the end of Escambia Bay. Like other Member of Congress, Gaetz was confronted with a raucous crowd of liberal protestors in support of various progressive causes. Although the overwhelmingly liberal audience was not representative of Florida’s overwhelmingly Republican 1st Congressional District, they did bring a lot of energy to the Town Hall, carrying signs, chanting, and asking tough questions of the junior Congressman.
Before the Town Hall
Before the Town Hall, two men were standing outside the front doors of the venue distributing flyers with an essay titled “On the Difference Between a Democracy and a Republic.”The venue – a large restaurant and bar space named Back Alley Grill – was already fairly full well before the Town Hall was scheduled to begin at 7 PM, and included a blend of people waiting for Gaetz, families out to dinner, and people sitting at the bar. As more people packed into the restaurant/pub area (at least a few hundred by the time Gaetz had appeared), picket signs began to appear with a variety of messages, generally from the progressive-liberal wing of the ideological spectrum:
- “We need the EPA”
- “I support public education”
- “Investigate Russian ties”
- “We need the United Nations”
Before the Town Hall began, there were also chants of: “This is what democracy looks like!” for example. At around 7:20 PM, the crowd began to chant repeatedly: “Where is Gaetz?”, perhaps fearing that he would cancel his appearance as some other Members of Congress had done. “The bowlers have asked us to keep the chanting down”, the manager stated to the crowd. Managers from the restaurant had also asked the crowed to move the chairs to the back of the room away from where Gaetz would be standing, and to make more space for Gaetz to stand. The Manager explained that he was requesting this “for security reasons” and that, “We’re dealing with a Congressman not a local politician.”
The Town Hall Begins
Gaetz appeared at the Town Hall at about 7:30 PM to a mixture of cheers and boos. He explained that he was late because he was having some meetings with constituents. Individuals who wished to ask Gaetz a question acquired a ticket, and corresponding tickets were then drawn from a hat. While a variety of questions were asked, the most common themes to emerge from the crowd included representation, the environment, health care, as well as Donald Trump and foreign policy.
One woman whose ticket number was drawn from the hat asked, “Do you represent your whole constituency?”, to which Gaetz replied tersely: “Yes, I do”, before inviting the next question. Later in the meeting, a person had asked: “How do you represent the various demographic groups across the district?” Gaetz replied abstractly, stating that “We live in a representative democracy”, and that “he has a duty to show up, to listen, and to let the views of his constituents inform his positions.” However, Gaetz also added that he would continue to be a constitutional conservative as long as he was their representative. Gaetz had also expressed gratitude to the crowd for showing up and asserted that such high levels of participation and energy were the sign of a well-functioning democracy.
It was also clear that the majority of the crowd did not want the EPA to be dismantled. Gaetz, who had recently introduced legislation – HR 861 – to dismantle the federal agency, doubled down, stating that the EPA is inefficient, and that states are better equipped to enforce federal legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. At least two individuals whose number had been drawn from the hat pointed out that water and air pollution are not limited by political boundaries and, referring to the recent Gulf Oil Spill, reminded Gaetz that if power was to be decentralized to the state level, Florida would not be able to regulate policies carried out in Alabama or Louisiana. One woman had stated that the EPA, while still imperfect, had become steadily more effective since its inception in 1970, and urged Gaetz to strengthen the agency rather than dismantle it. However, Gaetz remained opposed to the Agency, and added that policy guidance can be acquired from the top researchers of Florida’s Universities.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare”, was another topic that was brought up by many individuals. For example, one lady had urged Gaetz not to dismantle the ACA but rather to improve it. Gaetz reassured the crowd that the Congress would not allow insurance companies to deny services based on pre-existing conditions, but that ultimately the ACA was bad for the country and must be dismantled. Gaetz endorsed the ideas of Health Savings Programs, Block Grants to States, and perhaps also tax credits. Like several of Gaetz’s other statements, this was met with a chorus of boos and jeers, and two men from the back of the crowd called for “single payer!” Another lady asked: “Can you guarantee that I will have the same coverage after the ACA is repealed?” to which Gaetz replied unambiguously: “No”, given the nature of the free market system he supported. Another man had expressed concerns about the fiscal solvency of Social Security. In response, Gaetz endorsed the idea of raising the retirement age, an idea strongly opposed by the crowd.
Trump and Foreign Policy
The crowd pressured Gaetz to hold Trump accountable for his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also implored him to support an investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 general elections. On at least one occasion, Gaetz seemed to evade the topic entirely, going into a tangent about free market principles. At another point, Gaetz stressed that Congressional oversight should be non-partisan and rigorous, yet stopped short of making a precise pledge to investigate Trump. Another lady identified herself as a Republican from Pensacola, and asked Gaetz if he would call on Trump to release his income tax records. This question brought loud cheers from the crowd along with a repeated chant of “yes or no?” Despite the calls for a clear answer, Gaetz equivocated, stating: “Yes, Trump should release his tax records”, but added that he was just one member of the Judiciary Committee (implying that there wasn’t much he could do).
Another man had asked Gaetz why he supported pulling the U.S. out of the United Nations, underscoring the U.N.’s importance in the area of international law. Despite the loud cheers and applause from the crowd, Gaetz replied that the UN was “a globalist organization” as well as an enemy of the U.S. and Israel, and that U.S. tax dollars should not be going to the Palestinian Authority, which Gaetz linked to Hamas.
In sum, the main messages from the crowd seemed to be: “Don’t dismantle the ACA!”, “Don’t dismantle the EPA!”, and “Hold Trump accountable!” Meanwhile, Gaetz’s response could be summarized as: “While I thank you for coming out and expressing your views, I was elected as a constitutional conservative and I am not going to change my positions.” Although the Town Hall attendees were overwhelmingly liberal, Gaetz had probably kept in mind that Florida’s 1st Congressional District has a large Republican Party majority. In response to the last question of the night – “Will you vote to repeal Obamacare?” – Gaetz replied boldly: “Yes, the ACA is destroying our country, and I’ll do everything I can to repeal it to Make America Great Again!”