Healthcare, Russia and climate change were a few of the topics on District 10 constituents’ minds as they filled the Larsa Banquet Hall Monday night, hungry for answers to their questions from Congressman Jeff Denham at the first town hall event held since President Donald Trump took office in January.
The standing room only crowd of nearly 1,000 people was loud and demanding during the nearly three-hour event, opposing Denham on almost every topic of the night. Chants of “Do your job!”, “You work for us!” and “No wall!” echoed through the hall at various points throughout the event, and the audience raised red and green flashcards to show their disapproval or support of statements made. A sea of red cards could be seen nearly every time Denham responded to a question, and there were several points where Denham was forced to remain silent on stage, waiting for the yells of his constituents to die down.
“I’m willing to stay here as long as the Supervisor and everybody will allow us to stay here, as long as we’re respectful,” said Denham as his opening remarks were met with boos. “I want to answer every question.”
The town hall came after months of protesting from Denham’s constituents, who complained that the congressman has not been approachable enough and demanded a face-to-face question and answer session. Even after the event was announced in March, opposition groups still had issues with the format of the town hall, where questions were written on index cards and pre-approved by Denham’s staff, and other “silencing tactics,” such as the event’s remote location in Denair and requirement of a District 10 ID for entry.
In an interview before the town hall event, Denham explained that he tries to be as accessible to his constituents as possible, whether it be through his mobile district office hours, meetings at his Modesto office or even speaking with residents at parades. The town hall was not scheduled in response to protests, he said.
“Normally, my philosophy has always been you wait until March or so when bills are being introduced so you actually have something to talk about,” said Denham. “We’re not trying to silence anybody. I’m meeting with everybody all the time, as I have every year. Nothing has changed.”
Denham was not the only elected official on stage at the town hall, which was moved from its original location of Stanislaus State to the larger banquet hall in order to accommodate the large group of attendees. Assemblyman Heath Flora, Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth and Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa were there as well, but they seldom spoke as a majority of the night’s questions were aimed at Denham. Flora did feel the force of the crowd when the first question of the night regarding free college tuition was directed at him, however, and Soiseth earned the support of the crowd, drawing cheers with several of his remarks regarding refugees and the LGBTQ community and even receiving calls of, “Run for Congress!” from those in attendance.
In terms of healthcare, Denham focused the conversation on the lack of access to care here in the Central Valley and included his plans to combat the shortage of doctors by expanding local residency programs. His remarks were met with light applause, though many still called on him to make healthcare more affordable and to “tax the rich,” as one constituent yelled.
Two of the loudest moments of the night were when the conversation turned to both climate change and the federal investigation into Russia’s election collusion.
After trying to answer the question of whether or not he believed in climate change in a roundabout way, the crowd chanted, “Yes or no!” over and over again until Denham was forced to give his position.
“Yes, I believe in climate change,” said Denham – a statement which was met with the only cheers of the night that were directed toward the Congressman.
He assured the crowd that they could trust him to use the best science available when it comes to the environment, but they disapproved of his support of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.
“I’m looking for policies that address all aspects of clean energy – solar and wind, but I believe hydro should be a green energy as well,” said Denham.
When Denham was questioned about investigating Russian hacking claims, there was a thunderous applause. He told the crowd that a bi-partisan investigative committee is currently underway in the House, as well as one in the Senate, and that the FBI is doing their own investigation also. The crowd, however, called for an independent investigation into the matter.
“If you’re hacking into our system, if you’re trying to manipulate elections, then yes, we need to hold whatever country it is accountable,” said Denham.
Despite the raucous behavior from the crowd and his clear frustration at being interrupted with boos throughout the event, Denham ended the night with words of appreciation for his constituents.