Frustrated with Rep. Barbara Comstock’s refusal to hold an in-person town hall, members from several affiliated political groups held one without her Friday, promising to send the questions posed there to the congresswoman.
The event was held by members of several Indivisible groups, a loosely connected political network that is adapting tactics successfully used by tea party conservatives in recent years to influence legislators for liberal means. The guide they follow, prepared by former congressional staffers, has a particular focus on obstructing President Donald J. Trump’s controversial agenda.
The practice of holding town halls for members of Congress who declined to hold their own during the February Congressional recess became a nationwide hallmark of Indivisible tactics.
Jan Hyland, one of the organizers of Indivisible Lovettsville 20180, said the event came about out of frustration when requests to Comstock’s office to schedule a town hall weren’t even answered.
“Only in the absence of that kind of dialogue did we say, ‘here’s how we’re going to do it,’ and really went to great lengths to make sure this is going to be a productive dialogue,” Hyland said ahead of the meeting. “We want only people who are voters in the district to be there, people who have thoughtful questions that they want to share with the congresswoman, and we wanted to create a format that, if she changes her mind and decides to come, it will work for that.”
She did not.
Comstock (R-VA-10) and her office were largely dismissive of the town hall, criticizing the size of the event, which accommodated only 150 people, and the moderator, Maryland-based food writer, critic and speaker Todd Kliman. Comstock’s office criticized Kliman for not living in the 10th District and hosting a series of panel discussions focused on Trump called “WTF Now!?”
“The Congresswoman has a long standing prior commitment tonight, and has hosted two telephone town halls that reached approximately 9,000 constituents where she can engage in a civil and conversational manner,” said Comstock Deputy Chief of Staff Jeff Marschner in a statement. “We have found constituents appreciate the opportunity to call in from home or wherever they are and listen in at their convenience,” and that Comstock is in “constant communication” with her constituents.
Comstock’s telephone town hall Tuesday, Feb. 21, covered a range of topics, particularly health care, and the congresswoman faced questions both friendly and challenging. She and her staff kept the call going about a half hour longer than planned, and said “thousands” of people were listening and “hundreds” lined up to ask questions. Only a handful of people got that opportunity, however. A previous town hall was criticized for having little advance notice.
“That doesn’t take the place of a community meeting, where people who live, work, play in the same area, have that shared experience in a room,” Hyland said, pointing to the lack of back-and-forth dialogue and follow-up questions in telephone town halls and the relatively few people who get to ask questions.
Hyland said about 250 10th District residents registered in a lottery for the 150 available tickets to Friday’s town hall, screening out people who do not live in the district. She said the venue was intentionally kept small to promote a civil discussion. As of Monday, a 4,400 had viewed Facebook video streams of the event.
At the event, similarly to a normal town hall, people lined up to ask questions at a microphone. A microphone and paper nameplate with Comstock’s name sat before an empty chair. A handful of designated “fact-checkers” tried to infer Comstock’s position from her voting record and past statements.
That event, at times, got noisy. There were few signs—the organizers had discouraged them—but there was cheering and clapping. Attendees spoke on seven major topic areas—national security, Trump’s conflicts of interest, education, the environment, immigration, and the Affordable Care Act.
“The congresswoman will be seeing this transcript, so if you fear that these words are just going to go out into the air, they’re not,” Kliman said at the town hall. “And if you feel that this is somehow just a show of showing up, hearing some interesting points of discussion, it’s not. This has meaning, it has value.”
“I think she doesn’t understand who we are,” said Ayala Sherbow, one of the panel relating Comstock’s past votes and statements on health care. “I don’t think she understands who you are. I think she thought that this was an ambush. I think she thought that we do not want real dialogue with her.”
Sherbow was one of 58 people who crowded into Comstock’s Sterling district office last month to ask the congresswoman to defend the Affordable Care Act. Comstock was not there, either. District office staff listened to their concerns, but sparked chagrin by passing on a broadly worded letter penned in advance of that meeting.
Sherbow said she’d later managed to speak with Comstock personally. She said Comstock spoke “passionately, and with some education and sanity, about the need to help people who are currently on Medicaid transition to work without losing medical benefits.”
“I said to her, if you had been in the room with the 58 angry people on January 18 and shared some of what you just shared with me, you would have had some of us eating out of the palm of your hand,” Sherbow said at the town hall. “But you need to talk with us.”
Kona Gallagher, former marketing program manager at the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, said she had worries about repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement ready, and that she had seen Comstock many times during her work for the county.
“I attended several events with Barbara Comstock as a delegate and as a representative, and that woman would show up to the opening of an envelope,” Gallagher said. “So the fact that she is not here tonight to listen to our concerns and answer our questions in person is incredibly insulting to me and to all of us.”
And Mike Turner, a former Loudoun County Democratic Committee chairman who ran for the Ashburn District supervisors seat in 2015, said he would like to launch a campaign for Comstock’s seat. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Frank Wolf for the seat in 2008.
Holding up a pocket copy of the Constitution, Turner said “in my wildest dreams, I never imagined that the chief domestic enemy to this document would be the president of the United States.” He, too, was critical of Comstock for not attending.
“If I am ever privileged to be elected for Congress from this or any other district, I would never, ever duck a public town hall meeting,” Turner said. “How dare you. How dare you duck your constituents. You work for us.”
After the town hall, Turner said, “I really, really want to run for this seat” but hasn’t yet consulted with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“The standard party answer is, you’ve got to have money and you’ve got to have a network,” Turner said. “I don’t have that much money, and I don’t have that big a network. What I have is a real passion. I know this district like the back of my hand.”
Organizers were pleased with the event.
“If democracy works, this is it,” Kliman said.