The Virginia Republican took at least 34 questions for over an hour
Questions from constituents ran the gamut
Rep. Dave Brat faced a raucous crowd Tuesday night at a town hall here in the outer edge of his district, where a majority of the room interrupted him with angry shouts and jeers.
The Virginia Republican took at least 34 questions for over an hour and at times appeared to enjoy the back-and-forth.
“I don’t mind boisterousness. I’m having fun,” Brat said toward the end, swinging his arm in the air as people continued to shout at him. “I like having debate, spirited conversation – if you can have a conversation.”
Activists in his district had been calling on Brat to hold a town hall since the election in November. Until Tuesday night, he had held Facebook town halls, drawing criticism from those who say he was trying to avoid confrontation.
While Republican lawmakers are facing pushback at town halls across the country, Brat especially ignited frustration among some women in his district when he was recorded last month saying that “since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go.”
It’s a phrase that was quickly embraced by activists and several women carried signs Tuesday night mocking Brat for his comment, including Michelle Harrington, 69, who held up a cardboard sign with a wire grill in it. “He thinks he can get women away from his grill,” she said. “But he can’t.”
Brat filled the 200-seat Blackstone Herb Cottage to capacity, event organizers said, while a long line outside snaked along a closed-down, historic street. The town has a population of about 3,600 and is located about an hour’s drive southwest of the most populous parts of Brat’s district, the Richmond suburbs. The area was recently added to Brat’s district.
At the event, Brat immediately launched into a defense of his accessibility.
“I had a pretty big political win a couple years ago based on being available to constituents,” he said. “I had 500 meetings with constituents in the past two years. I’ve been to every rotary – they’re sick of having me at the rotary.”
Town hall tension
Attendees wrote down questions on pink index cards, which were then drawn randomly and read aloud by the mayor of Blackstone.
Sanjay Rajput, a Democrat from Midlothian, Virginia, said he was disappointed that Brat took written questions rather than hearing directly from constituents.
“I don’t feel that’s a true town hall,” he said. “He wants to control the message. He doesn’t want to answer the hard questions.”
Questions from constituents ran the gamut, from inquiries related to climate change to Obamacare to President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press to whether Brat has a relationship with Trump adviser Steve Bannon. In fact, many of the questions had to do with whether he agreed with a range of Trump’s positions and statements.
Brat opened up the town hall by explaining his biography, including his surprising upset win against former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. But attendees started shouting “Questions! Questions!” when Brat spoke for more than five minutes about his background.
He started taking questions two minutes later.
Nearly every answer was met with loud rebuke from attendees, drowning out his comments at times. One woman standing in the back yelled at him throughout the evening, and police asked her to tone it down.
The topics delved into intense philosophical debates over whether the country was a Christian nation, and mini-arguments broke out between audience members in the back of room.
Brat, trying to show some bipartisan appeal, talked about admiring Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and called him a “truth teller” when it came to getting power out of Washington and Wall Street. He even did an impression of the former Democratic presidential candidate, which did not go over well with the crowd.
In one of the rowdiest moments, much of the audience erupted into shouting when Brat said Obamacare had “collapsed.”
Fed up with the dissent in the room, an apparent Brat supporter stood up and yelled at activists, calling them “f—ing idiots” and left the event.
Roughly a third of the crowd appeared to be supportive of Brat. They gave him a standing ovation when he started and some provided positive feedback at the end.
Another man walked out in the middle of the event, frustrated with Brat’s answers, not the activists.
“This is bulls—,” he said, grasping his wife’s hand as they left.
Asked by reporters about the disconnect between him and attendees, Brat said he didn’t feel that “there was any disconnect.”
“I gave them my best answer. If people don’t agree with my policy position, they may think ‘hey I didn’t answer the question’ because they wanted a different answer,” he said. “But I gave them my best answer.”
Attendees say they aren’t paid protesters
Some attendees waited more than an hour and a half outside before the event, like Alan W. Langer, a retired professor who said he considers Brat as an extension of Trump.
“I’m afraid he’ll be for a lot of his policies,” he said.
Mary Mullins, who identified herself as one of the women who’s been pressuring Brat to hold a town hall, said she found the “grill” line “dismissive and disrespectful.”
While Democratic groups like Indivisible played a role in organizing people and alerting them about the town hall, many constituents took issue with the notion that they were paid to attend.
“We’re not paid protesters and rabble-rousers,” Mullins said. “All of us care deeply about this country.”
Rajput agreed with the notion that the highly-charged environment at many town halls now resembles the tea party influence over town halls six years ago, saying, “if it worked for them, it should work for us.”
“If I could, I’d go up to a tea party person right now and apologize for accusing them of being paid,” he added. “Nobody’s paying me. I’m standing up for what I believe.”
Also scattered among the crowd were Brat supporters with colorful signs in support of the congressman. Some wore shirts that read: “I’m in the Brat Pack.”
A retired 65-year-old man from Henrico, Virginia, who only identified himself as Rick, carried a sign that said, “The Brat Pack has your back” and described the congressman as a “good honest man” who’s “done exactly what he said he’s going to do.”
Asked how he feels about all the Democrats in attendance, he said, “everybody is welcome to their opinion, and if (Brat) can change their minds, then all the better.”
Another Brat supporter, Bob Charlton of Glen Allen, Virginia, 65, said he was “kinda surprised” at the turnout.
“I’m afraid this is breaking down into a Trump vs. non-Trump kind of situation and it really is about Dave Brat,” he said. “He’s not Trump. He’s Dave Brat.”