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At congressional town hall meetings, citizens turn up the volume — and activism

February 24, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
With members of Congress on recess, usually that would mean lawmakers meeting with constituents at home in their districts. But fewer than 30 Republicans are holding meetings in the face of local protests and rowdy town halls. Lisa Desjardins reports from New Jersey, where five-term Rep. Leonard Lance faced more than a thousand people, ready to let him hear their urgent concerns.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Members of Congress have been on recess this week. Usually, that would mean a number of constituent town halls in their home states and districts.

But fewer than 30 Republicans are holding those meetings, as protests grow outside some district offices, and constituents rally inside the town halls that are scheduled.

Our team traveled to one of them in Northern New Jersey, near New York City, to see the dynamics in play.

Lisa Desjardins reports from the Garden State.

LISA DESJARDINS: Five-term New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance is about to hold his 41st town hall, but, tonight, the scale is different. He walks out to face more than 1,000 people ready to let him hear it, and still scores more are protesting outside.

MAN: I’m very concerned with what Trump is doing with our country, and what our congressman is allowing him to do.

BEVERLY SMITH, New Jersey: We should do something. We should change what’s going on, and we should do it now.

WOMAN: Two-six-three-six.

REP. LEONARD LANCE, R-N.J.: Very good.

WOMAN: Thank you very much for choosing my lucky number.

LISA DESJARDINS: It is polite tension. Those at the microphones give their local hometowns and ask questions that strike deep into national territory.

WOMAN: Why repeal? Why not reform the ACA?

WOMAN: All of us feel betrayed because you have flip-flopped on your position on the environment.

MAN: Do you support impeachment?

LISA DESJARDINS: Lance sometimes surprises the crowd by agreeing:

REP. LEONARD LANCE: I was the first Republican in New Jersey to criticize the initial executive order.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LISA DESJARDINS: But, more often, he differs.

REP. LEONARD LANCE: I don’t believe the Ways and Means Committee should be investigating the returns of private individuals.

MAN: He’s the president. He’s the president. He’s a public individual.

LISA DESJARDINS: This fury has been building since the election, and it exploded across the country in the past week, Congress’ first week of recess in the Trump presidency.

In Arkansas, Senator Tom Cotton heard about the Affordable Care Act.

WOMAN: I can tell you, three members of my family, including me, that would be dead and homeless if it wasn’t for ACA.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LISA DESJARDINS: In Iowa, for Senator Chuck Grassley, immigration and religion.

MAN: I am a person from a Muslim country, and I am a Muslim. Who is going to save me here?

LISA DESJARDINS: For Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, there was concern about miners.

WOMAN: And the last I heard, these coal jobs are not coming back, and now these people don’t have the insurance they need because they’re poor.

LISA DESJARDINS: The outcry is in some liberal-leaning areas, but also in places where the clear majority of voters is Republican or moderate.

Here in New Jersey’s 7th District, Congressman Lance is particularly on the radar because he’s been seen as moderate in the past, and because Hillary Clinton won this district in November.

National Democrats are now targeting his district. And unless he’s a check against President Trump, voters like these want him out, too.

WOMAN: Do you guys have Lindsey Graham over there?

WOMAN: Thank you.

REP. LEONARD LANCE: Meet Westfield 2020, an activist group only a few months old, today writing postcards to lawmakers. Most have never done anything like this before.

That includes founders Marci Bandelli and Lillian Duggan, Democrats and working moms who were casual acquaintances, and then, suddenly, allies.

MARCI BANDELLI, Co-Founder, Westfield 2020: After the election, devastating election, Lillian reached out to me.

LILLIAN DUGGAN, Co-Founder, Westfield 2020: It just occurred to me that, you know, even though I was very sad, that we needed to do something. And I thought, people need to figure out how this happened and start organizing.

MARCI BANDELLI: Being from the New York and New Jersey area, we know Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a showman.

LISA DESJARDINS: Theirs is one of nearly a dozen new anti-Trump groups in the congressional district since the election. This one started on Facebook, and is now more than 1,600-members strong.

LILLIAN DUGGAN: It’s important that our representation in Congress is — thinks critically about what Donald Trump is doing, and is able to stand up to his policies.

MARCI BANDELLI: We never knew that this was in our community. We never knew the passion and that these caring people, were here. It’s really rescued us from this pit that we’re really in. And — and everybody’s motivated.

LISA DESJARDINS: Two hundred miles away, from his living room in Washington, D.C., Ezra Levin is trying to galvanize all that local motivation into a national strategy for the left.

EZRA LEVIN, Executive Director, Indivisible: The theory of change here is that Donald Trump’s agenda doesn’t depend on Donald Trump. It depends on whether or not individual members of Congress choose to rubber-stamp that or resist it.

LISA DESJARDINS: He’s executive director of Indivisible, a progressive group with growing numbers of chapters and a borrowed game plan.

EZRA LEVIN: The inspiration for the guide strategy and tactics is the Tea Party. They understood back in 2009 that they didn’t have agenda-setting power. They didn’t have the House, the Senate or the presidency. They had the power to respond and resist. And they did through going to town halls, through meeting with their members of Congress in person.

LISA DESJARDINS: Rutgers political science Professor Ross Baker says, so far, the Tea Party comparison is only superficial.

ROSS BAKER, Political Science Professor, Rutgers University: The real question is, can it be sustained? The Tea Party managed to — managed to get that going and sustain it over a long period of time, because, I think, their focus was much more targeted, on Affordable Care Act and, subliminally, at least, on President Obama personally.

LISA DESJARDINS: Longtime Representative Lance senses a new tone.

REP. LEONARD LANCE: I think there are loud voices at the moment across the country.

LISA DESJARDINS: A lot of folks mention the word anger. Do you think there’s anger going on right now?

REP. LEONARD LANCE: I observed some anger, that I think that’s definitely the case. And I try never to be angry. It’s much better to try to reason with people, listen to their concerns, and to have a constructive dialogue back and forth.

LISA DESJARDINS: On that much, his constituents agree.

MARCI BANDELLI: I’m not angry. I’m motivated.

LILLIAN DUGGAN: We’re sort of we have started a business, right? And at the same time we have started the business, we’re offering a product, which is activism, and I think camaraderie as well.

LISA DESJARDINS: This group stresses none of them is paid. They even buy their own stamps. That’s despite what the White House press secretary has said about organizations like theirs.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: People are clearly upset, but there is a bit of professional protester, manufactured base in there.

LISA DESJARDINS: President Trump weighed in, tweeting: “The so-called angry crowds are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists.”

Back at the New Jersey town hall, the volume rises in the final 30 minutes.

REP. LEONARD LANCE: I believe that when, the president misstates, as, for example, the facts…

WOMAN: Lies.

LISA DESJARDINS: With calls for Lance to oppose the president, the congressman holds his own and tries to look ahead. He tells the crowd that, to meet demand, he will hold another town hall Saturday.

Marci Bandelli, watching quietly, is also making plans. Her group will be here, too.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins in Westfield, New Jersey.

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