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Avoiding hecklers, protesters and the public, this California congressman made his constituents schedule one-on-one meetings. Here's what happened.

Avoiding hecklers, protesters and the public, this California congressman made his constituents schedule one-on-one meetings. Here's what happened.
Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) hosts a hometown "huddle" at his congressional office in the Central Valley on Monday. (Gary Kazanjian / For The Times)

Central Valley Rep. David Valadao found a way to open his doors to people in his hometown without having to face protesters, hecklers and the public berating that scorched his Republican colleagues up and down California in recent weeks.

Instead of staging a free-for-all town hall in a high school gym, on Monday afternoon the former dairy farmer invited local residents into his Hanford office for one-on-one, 10-minute chats.

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No shouting. No demonstrators or police. No politician on stage nervously pacing back and forth. And no TV news crews recording it all.

Instead, a crowd of about 80 people milled around on the sidewalk outside Valadao’s storefront office and inside the lobby — Democrats, Republicans and independents, all under the watchful eye of a longhorn steer mounted on the wall.

"I prefer it, just because it's more civil," said retired dairy worker Marc McMillian, a 49-year-old Republican, who came to urge Valadao to support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. "If you have too many people yelling, no point ever gets across."

Ron W. Bates, a Democrat, disagreed. He accused the Republican congressman of shirking public accountability, saying he was afraid to publicly answer questions about the controversial policies of President Trump, including his crackdown on immigrants and the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare.

"It's almost like doing nothing. The public is not hearing any of his answers," said Bates, a retired school teacher from Hanford. "It's simple. He doesn't want to meet in public because he doesn't want people to yell at him."

Bates waited patiently for hours through the afternoon, honing his questions as he waited for his name to be called.

For weeks, Valadao's critics have jabbed him for not holding a town hall meeting, and his office drew protesters, including local union members and Democratic activists. The congressman says some of those demonstrators came from outside his congressional district, and said he doubted they had any "sincere" concern about the issues facing the people he represents.

Valadao defended the format he used Monday, which he called a "huddle," saying it allowed him to hear people out. The congressman also brushed aside criticism, saying he held six to eight open forums and community coffees in his district over the last year and that protesters were a common sight at almost all of them.

"We've had protesters, we've always had protesters, but our focus has always been to try to have a dialogue with our constituents," Valadao told The Times before the meetings began Monday. "There are legitimate concerns.… In the past, everyone wanted to impeach Obama and his administration. Now everyone wants to impeach Trump and his administration. It's just flipped sides."

By the evening, Valadao had met with more than 60 constituents over a span of five hours, with a handful of people still waiting their turn.

For Valadao, navigating the partisan divide is a treacherous and never-ending challenge. He has won three straight congressional elections in a Central Valley district where, as of October, Democrats had a 17-percentage-point advantage over Republicans in voter registration. In November, he handily beat back a challenge by Democratic attorney Emilio Huerta, son of United Farm Workers labor rights icon Dolores Huerta.

Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, a Democrat whose district is within Valadao's congressional district, credited the congressman's success to focusing on local concerns, including his support for legislation bringing more water to Central Valley farmers, and an ability to work across the aisle.

Two years ago, Valadao came out in support of retooling the nation's immigration system, including giving law-abiding immigrants who entered the county illegally a pathway to citizenship. Valadao also refused to endorse Trump during the presidential campaign and still makes an effort, with varying success, to keep his distance from president.

"Where I agree with him, I'll vote with him. When I disagree, I'll vote against him," Valadao said.

Central Valley Democratic Party leader Doug Kessler, who lives in Valadao's congressional district, said the Republican's aversion to Trump and his moderate views have helped keep him in office. Kessler added that he's been to a number of political events where people mistook Valadao for a Democrat.

Kessler, who briefly dropped by Valadao's event in Hanford, also praised the congressman for bucking his party on immigration. But he criticized Valadao for not doing anything to steer the GOP away from divisive, fiery rhetoric against immigrants.

Barbara Hill, who was one of the first who to speak with Valadao on Monday, said she genuinely likes her representative. He spoke to her Girl Scout troop and she said she sees him at the grocery store. But Hill, a 63-year-old retiree from Lemoore, emerged from his office with a sour look.

Hill, a Democrat, said she grilled him about GOP plans to repeal Obamacare, and asked how the Republicans plan to provide adequate healthcare coverage to the more than 100,000 people in Valadao's district who currently benefit from the expanded medical coverage. She also pressed Valadao on his support for cutting off federal funds to Planned Parenthood clinics, including one in nearby Fresno.

"He kind of didn't respond to that," said Hill, a former assistant prison warden. "He just said there were not Planned Parenthood clinics in his district, so it wasn't an issue for him."

Dave Jones, a retired agricultural services executive, called Valadao a good fit for the area, where Democrats lean more to the middle than their counterparts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Jones, 76, said Valadao was the first Republican he's ever voted for.

"He's a local guy, he's honest and he's not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican," said Jones, an independent. "He's the type of guy who will help us get out of this mess."

Twitter: @philwillon

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