Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, spent nearly 90 minutes answering questions at a Chesterfield County town hall meeting Tuesday evening before a largely Democratic crowd that interrupted, booed and yelled at him during much of the event.
The forum at Clover Hill Assembly of God church in Midlothian was Brat’s second town hall meeting of the year, and he fielded about 60 questions — most of them pointed — at times dodging answers. Questions were written on cards and asked by a moderator, not asked directly by constituents.
When asked about President Donald Trump’s firing Tuesday of FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s desire for a new wall on the Mexican border, Brat either didn’t answer or gave nonresponsive answers that led to booing from the audience.
Brat did try to explain his reason for voting with his party for the American Health Care Act — the controversial legislation that would repeal major parts of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and passed the House of Representatives last week. His answers were mostly interrupted with jeers.
“You may disagree with me on policy, but on the facts ... I’ll tell you the truth the best I can,” he said.
“Everybody asks for town halls so we can have civil discourse,” he said. “I’m trying to listen to the people right now.”
He was joined onstage by state Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, who scolded the audience and at one point asked for sheriff’s deputies to move positions.
“I’m going to ask you one time. Do not talk over me. Or you will be escorted out,” Chase said. “This is private property.”
But the crowd did talk over her. And no one was escorted out.
When Brat asked the crowd for a show of hands by presidential choices, an overwhelming majority expressed support for Hillary Clinton in last year’s election.
Brat defended his health care vote, reading from the bill at times. He said he has been trying to fight the notion that the plan will eventually hinder the ability of people with pre-existing conditions to get health coverage. That is in dispute between Republicans and Democrats.
Brat said he agreed with the crowd that the bill should have undergone an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office before the House voted.
Brat is part of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and he opposed the legislation when it first came up in March. Members of the caucus supported a changed version last week, one that was sprung quickly on the public and is expected to face significant changes in the Senate.
Brat’s district stretches from Culpeper down to the town of Blackstone in Nottoway County, where he held a town hall meeting earlier this year. But Chesterfield and Henrico counties make up the bulk of the district’s population.
Brat easily defeated Democrat Eileen Bedell in November with 57 percent of the vote, but Trump’s presidency has helped create a movement among Democrats and progressives that’s putting public pressure on Brat and Republican members of Congress nationally.
It has been likened to a reverse tea party movement — the opposite of the conservative groups that formed after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
There were more than 650 tickets issued for the town hall, and they were required for entry. But there were empty seats in the church by the start time.
Across the street, more than 100 protesters held signs and chanted.
Among them were Joe and Karen Brower of Chesterfield.
“The tea party is over,” Joe Brower said.
Karen Brower said she was stunned that the House Freedom Caucus had initially opposed the health care bill but reversed course.
She said her health insurance is not a problem, but said it’s those less fortunate she’s worried about. The Congressional Budget Office analysis of the first version of the bill projected that millions would become uninsured because of the health care changes.
“I’m a citizen, and we are supposed to look out for those in our country who can’t take care of themselves,” she said.
Carey Mason Perkins of Henrico, a lifelong Democrat, attended the forum, but her partner couldn’t because he didn’t have a ticket. She said she was annoyed to see 50 empty seats inside and felt that Brat failed to answer questions, “which is kind of his M.O.”
When asked whether he supported Trump’s request for a new border wall, Brat hedged.
“That wall hasn’t been defined in any way, shape or form in legislation yet, so there is no simple yes or no,” he said.
Brat said he agreed with the audience that Congress should pass a budget and not rely on continuing resolutions — which bring repeated risks of a government shutdown.
When asked why he thinks it’s not important for citizens to see Trump’s tax returns, many in the audience stood and cheered.
“The premise of the question is wrong. I do think it is important,” Brat said. But he said Congress doesn’t vote on that issue.
“It’s not a matter of law. There are conflicts of interest coming out by the day having to do with,” and he paused. “Russia!” several people yelled. Brat continued: “Russia. With China. With Iran. With elites all over this country. I want more transparency on all of (it).”
Brat said House and Senate oversight committees will review questions about ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
“Give me the evidence of Trump collusion,” he began, and then the boos drowned him out.
“In this country, you’re innocent until there’s evidence,” he said, a statement defending Trump.
When asked again about Russia and about Trump’s “personal enrichment at the expense of people,” he asked the crowd to provide him with any evidence.
“We’re looking for any probable evidence on any of it, and if you have any, share it with me,” he said, asking members of the crowd to share “any content” they had.
Brat also declined to answer what he thought of Trump’s travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries, a second version of which is on hold in court and is being reviewed by the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Brat blamed the Obama administration for Trump’s action, drawing loud boos, but Brat didn’t take a position himself.
Deb Giffin, a tea party activist from Henrico, attended the town hall and said the Trump opposition does seem like a mirror image of the tea party.
But “it’s more run by hate instead of love,” she said. “I think this is fueled by hatred of Trump, above all, and it just boiled over to everybody with an ‘R’ behind their name.”