Responding to a flood of constituent requests to his office, US Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska’s 1st District gave just three days notice to the public of a community town hall on Monday, 3/14/17 at 5:30 pm in Lincoln.
800+ Nebraskans showed up.
Usually the only time that many Nebraskans will show up in one place on such short notice in 29-degree weather is if the event involves helmets and pigskins.
Seats in the foyer of Nebraska’s largest high school, Lincoln Southwest, were filled 20 minutes before the event started. Standing room only was left for the 100 or so people who came in just before Congressman Fortenberry took the microphone.
The 7-term congressman opened by saying he believed we had just set a record for crowd size at a town hall in Nebraska. Then he told a silly story about a TV commercial, droned on about his staff, and proceeded to give a canned presentation which he said would be “a little bit about the first district, a little bit about his priorities in Washington, and some information about the Republican replacement for Obamacare.”
But no one was interested in the first two topics, and the slide show set up to display on five screens was immediately met with boos and shouts of “Let’s talk about the issues!” and “We don’t need a civics lesson”.
Technical problems also plagued the event from the start. The representative soldiered on, apologizing for the equipment failures and asking for respectful patience. But things went from bad to worse when he finally introduced the GOP health care plan. Boos and more shouting. The crowd, clearly loaded for bear, was having none of it.
Early on, things got raucous. Fortenberry had the only mic in the room, but he refused to surrender it to questioners, even after an insistent “Share the Mic!” chant broke out. People began to complain that they couldn’t hear, both because of the yelling and the inadequate audio. Some one called for the policemen patrolling the hall to remove the people who were shouting. The police declined to do so, and things settled down.
For about two minutes.
Almost every public remark was very pointed and well-received by the crowd. One of the first questions came from a man who respectfully reminded Fortenberry that he owed his allegiance to us, not Paul Ryan. Then he told his family’s story about business failure, job loss, outrageous medical bills, ruinous debt, bankruptcy, and homelessness. He explained how the social safety net saved him and his family, and how through hard work and determination he had brought them back to financial well-being and himself to personal reinvention: he’s now about to complete his PhD. His story was a heartbreaking and inspiring preface to the question, “After all we’ve been through, why would you deny my family health care?”
Another person wanted to know why Fortenberry voted to put a liar in the Oval Office. Some one else asked straight out whether he intended to vote for the GOP healthcare bill, yes or no.
More than once Fortenberry’s answer was “I don’t know”, but on this question the congressman was especially vague. He would only say that whether he voted for it or not, the GOP proposal would be changed by the Senate. This and other attempts to placate the crowd fell flat, especially when Fortenberry stated that he agreed with all our concerns and that the GOP health care plan would address them all adequately.
No one appeared to believe him, and they weren’t at all quiet about it.
But several questions got standing ovations. These included, “Why can’t we just have single payer?”, “Why must we de-fund Planned Parenthood?”, “Why did you vote for the mentally ill to have guns?” and “You have 5 daughters of your own. Would you leave them in the same room with your president?”
Fortenberry dodged them all. “Answer the question!!” was called out more than once by the highly frustrated attendees.
When pressed on the Planned Parenthood issue, Fortenberry would only insist that he would not ever approve funds for a health care service that provided abortions, period. This tired rhetorical ploy fooled no one and only served to rile up the audience even more. On the guns question, he maintained that his vote was necessary so some people would not be denied guns merely because they had sought treatment for mental health issues. In effect, he felt the rights of the few to own a gun were more important than the rights of the many not to be shot.
Attendees were wildly vocal about their support for Obamacare and disdain for the GOP healthcare plan. They reinforced their boos at Fortenberry’s non-answers, and cheers and applause for the questioners’ remarks, by selectively waving red and green sheets of construction paper.
To his credit, Fortenberry did a remarkably good job of maintaining control, even if just barely. Although obviously rattled, he kept his cool and did not ask for anyone to be removed. But his responses were much less satisfying, alluding over and over again to budgetary concerns. One woman angrily objected, “You can’t talk about the budget just when it’s about health care and not talk about the budget when you’re going to put up a $40 billion dollar wall!”
When the cheering for that remark died down, the crowd immediately erupted into a “No wall!” chant.
After many admonishments to call on a person of color, a young Latina holding a small child was allowed to speak. She told the story of how her father had been in deportation proceedings for years and how tearing families apart was not the solution. Fortenberry’s inadequate response waxed patriotic and condescending, and even referred to how we must “protect our national identity”, whatever that meant. Once more clamor erupted, as people loudly reminded him, “We are all immigrants!” and “Our national identity is a melting pot!”
The final question came from an elderly woman who had been holding her cane high to be called on all evening. She rose and said, “In my opinion, you and your cohort should pick the health care that you want, and let the rest of us have the same thing.” While the crowd jeered as Fortenberry declined to comment, the woman only pressed her fingers to her lips and gently blew him a kiss.
It was a very contentious evening and quite possibly the most unnaturally lively Nebraskan event held since, well, the last Huskers home football game four months ago. For all his shortcomings, Congressman Fortenberry was right about one thing; we probably set a record for crowd size at a town hall.
But another and more significant milestone was definitely reached as well: finally, finally, fearlessly fed-up Nebraskans stood up to their imperious red-state US representation and let him know exactly how they felt.
And it was a beautiful sight.