Town halls around the country are fractious affairs these days for Republican members of Congress, but the crowd of hundreds that showed up at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library in Metairie today for a town hall with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy was so raucous and furious that CNN began carrying it live.
People began arriving around noon to line up and hold a parking lot rally before the doors opened at 3 p.m., so attendees already were tired of waiting when Cassidy arrived 22 minutes late to the 3:30 p.m. town hall. The senator apologized, saying he was touring New Orleans tornado damage, an explanation that didn't go over well in the crowd of 200 or so who were allowed in, which jeered and booed him. And that was just the start.
"If all you want to do is vent," Cassidy said early on, "this will not be profitable."
They did. It wasn't.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its likely repeal has been the top topic at many town halls in the last couple of weeks, but Cassidy had something to offer that many Congressmembers did not: He is a doctor, and he has created a plan called the "Patient Freedom Act,"
which he says will both make health care more affordable and cover more Americans. Critics say it will cover fewer people and be a boon to the insurance industry, and many at the town hall were angry that GOP members in Washington D.C. seem willing to repeal the ACA without providing an immediate replacement.
As he had at a town hall the day before, Cassidy had planned to answer written questions from the audience (pink index cards were piled outside), but it was clear early on that the crowd wanted to ask its questions directly.
Cassidy began the town hall by bringing up his work on a 2016 mental health bill
, but audience members demanded discussion of the ACA. Cassidy then began a PowerPoint presentation of his proposed health bill, which went over even less well: "We're familiar with this!" yelled one woman, while a chant rose from the crowd: "Take our questions! Take our questions!" One man accused him of "filibustering" the town hall.
The first question from the index cards was ""What are you doing to protect Jews and Muslims from hate crimes?" Cassidy took a softer tone than that of President Donald Trump's administration, mentioning his respect for doctors of Middle Eastern descent he had known: "For all practical purposes," he said, "they are us."
Shortly after, though, some in the audience demanded to know if Cassidy planned to vote to repeal the ACA — even if his plan, or another, wasn't in place: "One syllable!" a man demanded. "Yes or no?"
Cassidy demurred, plowing on, and shortly after the man who had asked the question was warned by Jefferson Parish Sheriff's officers to stop disrupting the meeting. He continued to shout and was marched out by a JPSO official.
Eventually Cassidy gave up on his index cards and attempted to answer audience questions, but even though he was mic'ed, it was hard to hear many of the answers. Asked about his vote for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (and her financial support of his campaign), Cassidy began, "The DeVos family decided to support my political campaign because..." The rest was inaudible over the booing. Later, he said, ""When someone donates to me, they sign up for my agenda; I do not sign up for theirs." More booing.
Among the other topics raised but barely touched: climate change; the role of Russia in the recent presidential election; and Common Core and charter schools.
After the event, Gambit
asked Cassidy if he thought there were paid protesters in the audience, as the White House and some Congressmembers have suggested.
"No, no," the senator said. "I assume they're Americans who care about our country, who feel differently about Trump than most folks in Louisiana do. But they're coming out with their Constitutionally protected right to assemble and speak. And isn't that a good thing!"