It was cold, windy, wet and generally unpleasant Friday afternoon, when I lined up with hundreds of Dr. Harris’ MDCD-1 constituents, waiting to enter the Chesapeake College building, where the long-awaited town-hall meeting would take place. Despite the weather, the huddled crowd was good natured, chatty and for the most part, looking forward to challenging their Congressman for some explanations of his and his Freedom Caucus colleagues’ positions and votes. There was even some speculation he might not appear, given the raucous welcome other conservative House members had received at similar gatherings.
The atmospherics resembled a medieval fair waiting for the jousting to begin. Soggy, but very informative handouts were distributed. A woman in a yellow, hooded Orioles rain suit walked up and down and back and forth, wearing a sandwich board with signs: one side featured President Trump and the other a pithy health care message. She was besieged by the media. The 12th Century ambience was heightened by several tents, one for changing your voter registration and others for signing various petitions. The tent line backed onto a row of plastic tomb stones featuring more political humor.
After about an hour plus, the doors opened and we streamed in, walking past tables where one could write a question on a card after signing in (name, contact info etc). Few stopped because of the determined dash to get good seats inside. Many attendees carried small red and green signs (no/yes) and other, cleverer folks, had folded up longer, larger signs to escape the imposed size limit (8 1/2 X 11). I ended up in an aisle seat, close to the stage surrounded by good Kent County friends, similarly equipped.
Several Harris staffers began rather frantically to hand out and collect cards with questions. Slowly, the auditorium (seats some 908) filled up. The previously closed balcony was opened allowing more people to find seats.
Circa 6:05 PM, a moderator was introduced, a strong hint this event was not to be an open exchange of views with our congressman. Next up, was a four member uniformed high school ROTC Color Guard, that marched smartly on stage and we stood and pledged allegiance. The congressman executed and held, a firm military salute.
Next we were reminded of the strictures regarding deportment etc. Anxiously we awaited the first question. But, not yet; first, there was a 10 minute slide presentation narrated by Dr. Harris, tracing the US national deficit and debt since the late 18th Century. At slide #2, the yelling, booing started demanding he move to the questions. But, he continued until possibly #5 or 6, as the audience more loudly demanded the lecture stop. Congressman Harris, and the moderator, sighed and exchanged meaningful looks and he then walked across the stage and nonchalantly leaned against the podium waiting for the “mob” to regain a civil composure. It eventually did.
Finally, at 6:17PM, the moderator selected the first question to be asked and handed it to Dr. Harris. They addressed environmental clean-up of the Bay, the Affordable Care Act, the Administration’s budget proposal cancelling funding for the Clean-Air Act, coal sludge into rivers, then Russia, personal narrative re human suffering if ACA was repealed etc. The Congressman answered either tangentially or by repeating the maxim that while these were all good programs, they had to be balanced against the economy, which couldn’t afford them. There was another slide or two showing Medicare/Medicaid costs sharply increasing to a perilous point in 2050. More signs and shouting for a single-payer system erupted.
Yelling, booing, red cards (and a few green when he agreed the Chesapeake should be cleaned up) broke out during and after most answers. The audience stood up and screamed various messages and/or sat down. Two men marched around the inside of the auditorium carrying a very large sign “Single Payer”, leading to loud chants and cheers. At one point, the Congressman walked to the edge of the stage and sternly ordered a woman to sit down, at which point most of the audience stood up.
At 6:50PM, we had reached question 5 or 6, I decided to call it a night. The afternoon and early evening had definitely enabled the people to share with each other and then with their congressman, their anger and frustration. These are all signs of a healthy democracy, but to me there was little or no communication between the voters and their representative or vice versa. Would a more forthcoming willingness to discuss his voters concerns have made a difference? Would something less transparently designed to avoid such an eventuality have led to a more useful exchange? Possibly, but this has not been Dr. Harris’ style in the past.
I left feeling Dr. Harris had organized the short 60 minutes allotted to the entire session in such a way as to eliminate an personal engagement and to minimize the time available for the Q&As. This revealed something less than a serious commitment, to listen and learn. And further, he made no attempt to respond to the emotions clearly present. His rote answers are available on his and other Caucus members’ web sites. His demeanor throughout was condescending and reflected, to me at least, his perception the evening was an ordeal that must be gotten through for appearances’ sake.
I wonder if on the drive back, Dr. Harris thought, even for a second, that perhaps his constituents at Chesapeake College might have serious opinions and concerns worthy of his consideration.
Tom Timberman is an expert on military policy and now lives on the Eastern Shore. Among his many assignments with the US Department of State, he has headed a provincial reconstruction team, embedded within a combat brigade in Iraq. He has also helped implement a new counterterrorism strategy in South East Asia as Senior Advisor for South Asia in the Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism.