In Orange County on Tuesday night, Rep. Mimi Walters was nowhere to be found when more than 800 people showed up at an Irvine high school for an activist-organized “town hall.”
Outside Rep. Darrell Issa’s Vista office, hundreds of protesters, some dressed in hospital gowns or holding crutches, arrived for a “sick in” protesting his vote while the congressman raised money at a white sand beach resort in Florida. And about 130 miles north, the handful of people who showed up to the Simi Valley office of Rep. Steve Knight talked to a single staffer while others were met with a locked door.
All three Republicans were reelected in districts won by Hillary Clinton and have been named as top targets by Democrats. All three, along with the rest of their Republican California colleagues, voted for the GOP plan to dismantle Obamacare last week. None of the three have announced public events in their districts this week even though the House is out of session.
With the first major policy vote on President Trump’s agenda complete, members of the so-called “resistance” and the members of Congress who represent them seem to have gone to their corners as they prepare for what Democrats hope will be a competitive 2018 election season. More and more, left-leaning activists in these Republican-held districts are shifting from attempts to engage with their congress member to promises to defeat them.
As a light drizzle fell Tuesday morning in Vista, at least 500 protesters toted umbrellas and signs reading “Repeal and Replace Issa,” alluding to a popular Republican rallying cry against Obamacare.
They sang an anti-Issa song to the melody of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Issa, we will not grow tired/ Your replacement will be hired/ Pack your bags, because you’re fired!/ It’s time for you to go!”
“If anything good came of all this, it’s that [Issa] finally put his vote on the table so we know where he stood,” Encinitas resident Ellen Montanari said afterward. “He threw so many of his constituents under the bus.” Others said they felt betrayed because Issa, who had kept mum on which way he was leaning, cast one of the final votes to pass the bill.
Inside Issa’s three-story building, the congressman’s doors were locked, with signs warning of video surveillance and instructing visitors to ring a doorbell for service.
Issa has held at least one town hall meeting this year and has been known for impromptu appearances to address protesters outside his office. On Tuesday, Issa was at an annual fundraiser at the Longboat Key Club resort in Sarasota, Fla. Issa spokesman Calvin Moore said the congressman considers the healthcare bill a “work in progress” and is committed to strengthening the bill as it moves through the Senate, particularly the provisions addressing patients with preexisting conditions.
“Continuing the status quo was unacceptable,” Moore said. “This is our shot and our best chance to begin undoing the damage that Obamacare has done to Californians’ healthcare.”
Walters, unlike Issa and Knight, never waffled over her support for the GOP healthcare bill. In an interview at her Irvine district office Tuesday, spokesman T.W. Arrighi said that although the volume of calls and emails to the office ahead of the vote was “heavy,” many of the complaints came from people who live outside the district and were armed with “wild misinformation” pushed by liberal groups.
“If she didn’t vote for the bill, she’d be doing a tremendous disservice and injustice to those who voted for her and wanted her to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Arrighi said, pointing to the double-digit margins of Walters’ last two victories. “That’s an overwhelming mandate for her to act the way she did.”
A visitor log in Walters’ reception area showed about two dozen entries for constituents in April and early May, many of them asking her to hold a town hall. A television mounted to the wall was set to Fox News as the president’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey unfolded, and phones rang only intermittently in the background in the otherwise quiet office.
A couple of hours later, hundreds gathered at Northwood High School a few miles away for an “empty chair” town hall that was scheduled to go on with or without their congresswoman. Walters didn’t show. Her staff declined to say exactly where she was this week, but said she was meeting with constituents in the district.
Before the town hall began, participants snapped photos with a handmade cardboard cutout of Walters dressed up as the title character of “Where’s Waldo?” and wrote messages on butcher paper for later delivery to her office.
In Walters’ absence, organizers played clips of Walters’ campaign ads and invited a panel of speakers to discuss topics such as the environment and immigration. Audience members asked questions about Walters’ positions and held up red and green cards to express approval or disagreement.
When a high-schooler stood to ask about how to improve bipartisanship and the political climate, law professor and panelist Jennifer Lee Koh replied, “Real facts and real news.” She added, to much applause, “Not Fox News.”
When the event ended, a trio of challengers already running against Walters chatted up potential voters.
Brooke Leys-Campeau, 41, of Tustin said she and other constituents grew frustrated after repeatedly trying to reach out to Walters. “I wrote letters, sent emails, I called the office and my general impression was that she was not ever planning to legitimately engage with us,” Leys-Campeau said. She had hoped she could convince her representative to “at least stand up to [Trump] on certain issues,” but said it soon became clear to her that Walters wouldn’t. “The shift went to, ‘Well, we’ve got to get them out and get people in who will,’” she said.
Further north, three small groups of activists were able to speak with one of Knight’s staffers in Simi Valley, but by the time Peggie Noisette showed up later that afternoon, the door was locked and there was no answer. “They should be responsive to their constituents,” said Noisette, 76, of Simi Valley, as she slipped a letter under the door.
Later Tuesday, Knight, who is a military veteran, spoke to a small gathering at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Palmdale.
A spokesman for Knight defended his vote, noting that Knight sponsored an amendment adding $8 billion over five years to help cover insurance costs for those with preexisting health conditions, an approach advocates and policy analysts say fell flat in California and other states until Obamacare came along.
“Rep. Knight continues to fight for protections for individuals with preexisting conditions, which is why he is a coauthor of the Upton-Long amendment,” spokesman Daniel Outlaw said in an email.
Not everyone was lying low. Rep. Jeff Denham, who won reelection by just 3% in November, was grilled by constituents at a small gathering in the Central Valley town of Riverbank. Denham, who held no other public events this week, mostly took the heated questions in stride but suggested at one point that “the Democrat Party” had organized detractors to face off with him.
“I am suffering and you don’t care,” said one woman who confronted Denham. “I have talked to you … I have been civil and I get blank ‘Blah, blah blah’ in response.”
“I know the Democrat Party has organized this this morning,” Denham replied, before the group jeered at him.
Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and editor of the nonpartisan election guide California Target Book, said the politicians’ responses could reflect how at risk they actually feel.
“In the case of Denham, facing the music would make a lot of sense,” Sragow said, given that Denham is one of only two California Republicans in Congress from a targeted district whose voters have shown a particular propensity to pick Democrats in statewide and presidential contests. “The others may be more inclined to avoid the confrontation and the inherent risks in a town hall setting.”
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