Story highlights

McSally kicked off her town hall without as much as an opening statement

The town hall was a spirited, rowdy and at times tense discussion with roughly 260 constituents

Sahuarita, Arizona CNN  — 

The crowd outside chanted relentlessly for more than an hour as Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSally answered questions at a town hall meeting in southeastern Arizona Thursday.

“We’re still here,” the crowd shouted.

Inside, McSally faced an equally emboldened group.

McSally kicked off her town hall without as much as an opening statement, telling the crowd that “we’re in a house of worship and God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. I’m here to listen to you.”

What emerged over the hour and a half town hall inside the sanctuary at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ was a spirited, rowdy and at times tense discussion with what authorities estimated were 260 constituents. McSally broke with her party and President Donald Trump on a handful of occasions and yet failed to assuage the progressives in the audience who screamed at her to “answer the question.”

McSally hails from one of the most divided districts in the country, a place where Hillary Clinton won in November and so did she. The district has been represented by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years with deep ties to the southern border and a deep concern for Trump’s plans for a border wall and enhanced deportation actions.

McSally described it herself as a place where “half feel very strongly in one direction and half feel very strongly in the other.”

The congresswoman confided with the audience early on in the meeting that some of the moments in Trump’s first weeks have been “tremendously bumpy.”

“Some of their decisions and the way they have implemented them have certainly not been well coordinated, not well implemented,” she said.

“I’m concerned about distractions. I’m concerned about not shifting from campaigning to governing,” McSally said.

She noted she would not have picked all of the members of Trump’s Cabinet herself and that she’d been frustrated with the administration’s refusal to make Secretary of Defense James Mattis available to the House Armed Services Committee for questioning during his confirmation

“That pissed me off,” she said.

McSally also made it clear she wasn’t sold on Trump’s plan to build a border wall.

“Not a continuous, 2,000-mile border wall, no,” she said, adding that enhanced technology and, in some places, more barriers may be necessary.

But McSally also noted she was concerned “about the hysteria” happening across the board.

“No,” the crowd booed.

“He’s our President. So what are we going to do about it?” McSally said.

“He’s not mine,” a woman screamed.

McSally continued, telling the audience that her job was to legislate, to be a check and balance on the President but not to be a constant commentator on his every move.

“I’m not (White House press secretary Sean) Spicer. I’m not his comm guy,” she said when asked to weigh in on the news of the day. “Let me tell you what I can do. I can do my job, which is to represent you in the legislative branch. And if you review the Constitution in Article I, it’s very clear what my responsibilities are. They’re not to be spending all day, roaming around Twitter to see what’s being said.”

Across the audience, it was clear that many of those who showed up at McSally’s town hall – some in bright pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts, others in black #resist garb – weren’t interested in McSally giving Trump any benefit of the doubt. At one point, two couples who supported Trump were so fed up with the interruptions and booing that they got up and left.

As the hour and a half dragged on, the tensions rose.

Many in the audience grew frustrated with McSally’s sometimes long and meandering answers.

“Yes or no,” some shouted.

“Answer the question,” several yelled at points.

“You are not answering our questions,” one constituent said when it was her turn to be called on. “Just answer our questions.”

The audience erupted in applause.

“You may not like the answers that I’m giving,” McSally said as she emphasized she was trying to answer them.

When it came to the hottest topic of the day – health care – McSally tried to explain where the GOP stood and what their progress was, but the audience booed her as she tried to explain the ways Obamacare had hurt voters.

“I support that we’ve got to make sure that people with pre-existing conditions get access to health care. They should never be denied. You should never be one diagnosis away from bankruptcy,” McSally said. “As we move toward a replacement for Obamacare, which doesn’t have the disastrous effects that Obamacare has had –”

“Please, it has not,” one man shouted as the audience jeered.

After 90 minutes, McSally was just about finished when a young boy got his question after the audience shouted at the moderator to “let the child speak.”

He asked point blank why McSally thought Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was qualified.

McSally asked him back “why do you think she’s unqualified?”

“Because she wants guns at school for protection of grizzlies,” he said.

After the town hall, attendees who spoke with CNN said they were appreciative that McSally had taken the time to speak with them even if they didn’t agree with some of her positions.

“I think she did a good job. She didn’t answer the questions. She did obfuscate a lot of the time, but she’s a politician. It’s clear that there is a lot of passion, there is a lot of fear, and I think we need more and more town halls,” said Deedy Coghlan, 67.”

Katalina Jimenez, 43, drove from Tucson for the town hall and stood with a picture of her sister. Her sister suffered a stroke last year and was being evicted from her skilled nursing facility Thursday after insurance refused to pay for the services any longer. Jimenez said she’d hoped to show McSally the importance of strengthening, not repealing, the Affordable Care Act.

“Obamacare didn’t go far enough,” Jimenez said. “They are playing with people’s lives.”

Pat Bencic, 69, said that she attended the town hall to get a clear picture of how Republicans planned to replace Obamacare.

“All we’ve heard for seven years is Obamacare is awful,” she said. “OK, what do you have to take its place?”

But not everyone at the town hall was there to criticize or call out McSally.

Sue Ogg, 75, said she came to show her support.

“I think she’s doing great,” Ogg said.