Unruly local town halls are all the rage these days. Whether they feature fleeing Senators, children clapping back, or accusations of the events being “designed to heckle,” the local political events have become national spectacles, thanks in large part to our current president. In fact, Trump even acknowledged their ever-growing presence with this recent hot take:
The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2017
Town halls are more relevant than ever, with the local events now sparking a variety of news clips, sound bytes, widespread social media circulation, and even some screentime in the latest episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It's clear that public concern about our political climate is omnipresent throughout the country. As such, I decided to attend a town hall in California’s Western San Gabriel Valley. Diehard fans of Congressional districts will know that this is the 30th. If you’re in an Uber in LA, this area is fondly referred to as “the Valley” — a place marked by chain restaurants, high temperatures, and reasonable rent.
As I drove to the brutalistic Van Nuys State Building Auditorium, I kept my expectations in check. I reminded myself that this 3:30 PM weekday town hall was being hosted by a democratic Congressman and would probably not look like any of the raucous town halls I’d observed on Twitter. I expected elderly constituents, eager to talk about paltry issues, and a dull echo chamber of California democrats in quiet agreement.
When I arrived a half-hour early, I was struck by the size of the crowd: it was packed to standing room, diverse but mostly old, and extremely loud. It felt like a bingo hall, but every third word was “Trump.” Two attendees had knitting needles, and approximately ten were wearing Pussy Hats. When it was announced by local Assemblyman Matt Dababneh that Congressman Brad Sherman was “en route” after an appearance on MSNBC, the fray roared in delight. But what came after wasn’t the left-leaning lovefest I expected.
Sure, there were audible sighs of relief when Sherman (who resembled a younger Wallace Shawn) announced he would be bringing Cali-sensitive issues to Congress like the Aliso Canyon gas leak, ICE raids, and celebrating religious diversity. Sure, there were loud cheers when Sherman promised to overturn Citizens United, “make California the most progressive State in the Union,” and correct “the biggest mistake the Electoral College has ever made.” But that’s about where the crowd broke down. Sherman’s nerdy humor (“the average guys on Wall Street are smart as the average protozoa!”) was no match for the crowd of voters that wanted real answers about the fate of our country on both a federal and municipal scale.
During the open discussion, factions broke out amongst the audience when a granola bar box filled with submitted questions appeared, causing several older women to scream, “No cards!” Cards were used anyway. Assemblyman Dababneh pleaded with the audience to keep their voices down and respect each other, but nobody cared. Constituents screamed, “BE LOUDER!” at each other in pissed-off tones.
After several surface-level answers from Brad Sherman left the audience feeling dissatisfied, the crowd got heated. One attendee asked, into the microphone, if Sherman would be investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. Sherman said he was doing everything he could. A younger, more radical woman, holding an “investigate Trump” poster, asked a follow-up question off mic about the Emoluments Clause. Like vultures, the audience screamed at her, dragging her for “not waiting her turn” until Assemblyman Dababneh had to take the mic and break it up. Sherman’s meek response to the chaos: “I’m not in control of the federal government all by myself!”
Congressman Sherman has been a member of the House since 1997, but last week’s town hall made him look like a grade school class president trying to quell the popular kids smirks with fake pledges to bring Dr. Pepper back to the vending machines. I personally felt cheated by the entire affair. Not because it was boring, but rather because it was exciting, and the politicians seemed unfazed or irked by the crowd’s strong enthusiasm. We, the people, are giving these reps the passion they’ve always wished for. We’re asking questions! We’re yelling! We’re bringing signs! Instead of excitement, we were met with representatives who’d rather shrug it off and claim they’re doing all they can instead of engaging in real discourse.
I get it. Technically, it is easier to cut a ribbon for a playground than promise to prevent the spread of fascism and normalized white supremacy.
Later, one voter shouted out of turn, “Where are his tax returns?” and the entire crowd cheered. Sherman had already talked about Trump’s taxes 30 minutes prior, but his metered answer about forming a committee was just not enough. The Congressman took the microphone and implored the audience, “Guys, I have not hacked into the IRS computer system. I wish I—” catching himself, he paused, “No—I-—well, I wouldn’t recommend doing that.”
This little gaffe hung in the air for a moment, before an elderly woman shouted, “SB-610!” apropos of nothing. The look on Brad Sherman’s face was resigned. He clearly hadn’t signed up for this. By the next town hall, the room’s only going to get louder.