Eye on Town Hall

By Friends & Neighbors February 23, 2017 16:20

By Suzy Hopkins

Donald Trump’s indictment of the news media as “the enemy of the American people” got me thinking.

In essence, the press is supposed to be a representative of the American people — people who for reasons of time and sanity can’t attend every school district meeting, fire board session, county planning meeting, etc. Or who may not have the access or time or bravado or influence to ferret out facts essential to community decision-making.

Have people forgotten how much trained and impartial observers can shed light on the inner workings of institutions, whether those institutions are corrupt or incorruptible? Is the press so undervalued and subject to its own partisan divisions (and outside attacks by partisan interests) that it is no longer relevant?

That thinking led me to Congressman Tom McClintock’s Feb. 22 town hall in Sonora. My interest was two-fold: Would the media reports match what I saw?  And would people treat each other with respect, despite deep political divides?

The auditorium was at capacity. I saw the woman who painted our living room last year, two of our kids’ former teachers, two school librarians, our attorney, county officials, in-towners and out-of-towners with all manner of signs and shirts and hats. They were soon singing “God Bless America,” a warmup to the main event, amid a large law enforcement presence, including California Highway Patrol, Sonora Police, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department, and CalFire.

Statements of allegiance were everywhere as well.  Trump fans: “Deplorable and proud of it.” “Make American Great Again.” “If you don’t love America, why don’t you get out.” And anti-Trumpers: “Lies!!”  “Resign President Bannon.” “I’m a constituent, not an anarchist.”

And pre-printed signs from double jibers: “Dump Tom McTrump.”

How interesting these passionate times are, I am quietly thinking, when a fight breaks out in my aisle.

They used to call it “hocking loogies” — that’s the only way I can describe the noises the man behind me makes each time he hears from Trump protesters to my left.

He is so loud I wonder if I should say something. I pray he simmers down. The crowd begins to chant, “This is what Democracy looks like.”

My back-door neighbor hocks mock loogies, announcing proudly, “I’ve been steaming up for this for weeks.”

He’s testing my resolve, clearly.

“You’re disgusting,” a gray-haired woman on my left tells him. “We have to be human to each other.”

Nice idea, however untrue.

He snorts and grumbles theatrically, hocks and snickers and tosses asides to his companions who seem to be on his side, unless he is simply the hard-drinking relative you can’t disown but wish wouldn’t accompany you to public events. It leads me to wonder: 1/ Do I have the worst luck in the world finding a seat in a public place or 2/Is this simply the nature of this gathering?

Both seem to be true, with #2 having a slight edge. Suddenly a woman behind me is  jabbing her finger at a woman to my left and hissing, “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say!”

I missed whatever precipitated this fight. They proceed to argue about whether one’s immigrant grandmother from Sweden trumps the other’s biracial family. Things are getting heated. I video them for a moment in case fisticuffs follow; they don’t notice.

The  self-satisfied hocker/loogier has another woman in his sights: A pleasant looking lady from Murphys who finally can’t tolerate the man’s conduct (“a little congestion,” he snorts derisively, sounding  pleased with his perceived witticism) asks him to quiet down.

His retort: “I didn’t come to be bothered by some yappy-ass woman.”

Ouch. Yappy-ass seems like a slam at a poodle, perhaps, a dalmatian at best, but the dog image is abiding and to her credit she ceases to engage. This is a wise move.

McClintock’s arrival is  a relief, perhaps a lifesaver. I’m sure the back of my head has been hit with some serious saliva, and the prevalence of flu locally makes me wonder if I am doomed. But the sense of doom extends far beyond flu, apparently: Many in the auditorium seem to be feeling it.

Our Republican Congressman’s district is big (it encompasses about 10 counties), so big that I suspect he can’t name all the towns, hamlets and provincial backwaters contained therein. The silver-haired politician opens by acknowledging these are “tempestuous times” — shouts and catcalls from the clattering crowd confirm this — and introduces a young man bound for Air Force duty, which gets the crowd cheering.

He follows up with a more dire pronouncement about the fate of the “sniveling coward” who slashed tires at the previous night’s event in Mariposa. “We’re going to throw the book at you,” he vows. “When you get caught, God help you, because we won’t.”

The loogying has stopped. Things are looking up. Then the congressman takes questions: about a dozen in all, during the one hour this group is accorded. There are “300-400 others outside” who will come in for a second shift, McClintock says.

Most of the speakers are 50 or older, it seems, with a few exceptions. They ask about health insurance, Medicare, climate change, gun laws, Social Security and more. Some questions seem designed to elicit actual information, others to abrade and abash their elected representative. There is outrage and anger here, a simmering undercurrent that confirms the “tempestuous” label.

  • No, he won’t support an investigation into the Trump administration’s potential or alleged ties to the Russians.
  • He won’t endorse fracking in Tuolumne County, he indicates, but “in the Alaskan tundra, yes,” which elicits much ire. He calls fracking “one of the greatest boons to the American economy.”
  • Federal land managers have mistreated a “huge number of people,” he contends.
  • He says Social Security is going bankrupt.
  • He says California should be denied federal funds if it doesn’t comply with federal law — as in, if Gov. Brown moves to create a “sanctuary state”.
  • He praises Trump for “keeping all his campaign promises.”

One man asks for a probe of Trump’s alleged Russian ties/emolument issues/potential conflicts of interest. “This is your opportunity to become something other than a back-bencher,” he tells McClintock.

“I’m not going to participate in an effort to de-legitimize this election,” the Congressman replies.

The atmosphere is disintegrating, a shift toward greater stridency. A woman standing in the back has been clamoring loudly for microphone access. Somehow she gets it. Is McClintock fine with polluted air, polluted food, a polluted world, she asks, then begins to chant: “Polluted air, polluted food, polluted world.”

img_0726The din in the auditorium obscures all but one word of McClintock’s answer: “damning.”

Or perhaps it was “damming.”

Honestly, I can’t hear, and the temperature seems to have passed the 90-degree mark inside the building, leaving me feeling feverish.

Another speaker slams what he called the “pay-to-play Cabinet.”

“Let’s criticize the judges that gave us Citizens United… What are you going to do to rein that in?”

Again, I can’t hear McClintock’s answer.

True, it’s terribly loud, but I am also distracted by a handsome fire captain patrolling the aisles, perhaps looking for troublemakers, poised to quell the flames of citizen unrest. I suddenly want the man behind me to start hocking and loogying so I can quickly report him. “Mr. Handsome Fire Captain,” I imagine myself saying, “may I speak with you outside, please, on a matter of some urgency?”

Perhaps I am simply dizzy, unhinged — by the crowds, the cacophony, the heat of more than 500 impassioned souls jammed into a single auditorium, straining to hear words that will never reach my row.

Now a churchgoing woman takes the mike, citing verse from Sunday’s sermon: “Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own … ” which morphs into her question: “What are you going to do to push back Trump’s abuse of foreigners in this country?”

Illegal immigration, McClintock replies, undermines our legal processes. No harm, no foul, he seems to be saying.

A man from Camp Connell, one of those hamlets McClintock may have trouble locating, is speaking. Trump, he says, “may be in the process of selling our Democracy down the drain.”

This strikes a chord with the crowd, and much chanting ensues.

McClintock: “I don’t see skullduggery there.” img_0714

This seems to be a pattern: Complex questions and issues, simple answers.

Nor does he see climate change as a problem. Over a rising din he tells the crowd he won’t “support policies that will destroy our economy” based on science he apparently doesn’t believe.

Defunding Planned Parenthood? This concern is voiced by an 82-year-old former Tuolumne County supervisor. “I and millions of women in this country WILL NOT BE PUSHED BACK, SIR.” The crowd goes wild.

McClintock: Planned Parenthood clinics have “pressured women into having abortions.” More clamor.

Several speakers fear demise of the Affordable Care Act. McClintock: Those with pre-existing conditions will find solace in “high-risk pools” and tax credits.

“If you want to repeal/replace something,” a man in the audience yells, “replace the president!”

It is time for the second shift to take our place. Thank goodness. I am exhausted, spit-covered and sore-necked from swiveling to spot speakers and avoid getting sprayed. This is Democracy in action: loud, messy, uncomfortable, and at times terrifying.

Did anyone actually learn anything? I did: about McClintock’s views,  human nature, and my tolerance for cranky people.

But what of the free press? I will learn more when I watch the evening news and read tomorrow’s papers. I am curious if the reporters attending tonight saw what I saw, heard what I heard.

What was the view from two rows over, or across the auditorium? How far apart, exactly, are our different worlds that in reality are so close together?

Thankfully, I found a small sign of hope just outside the front door in the cool, clean night air:


Hopkins, 57, is a former newspaper reporter and editor, now editor/publisher of Friends and Neighbors Magazine.

By Friends & Neighbors February 23, 2017 16:20
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  1. Eve February 24, 10:26

    Loved your very accurate, relatable and humorous account of that night. I was sitting in another section but can attest to similar experiences. There was a guy behind us yelling every once in awhile and as we walked out my husband remarked “I thought I recognized that voice from our son’s basketball games 20 years ago”.

  2. Tuol-a-mite February 24, 12:19

    Gosh, Ms. Hopkins, what great reportage! I was one of the many who gave up and never got in. This article was exactly what I needed. Good-humored and informative. Thanks!

  3. Patricia February 24, 14:56

    Great job of describing the experience of my first Town Hall and summarizing what McClintock had to say despite your claim that you couldn’t hear much over the bedlam. With today’s news about barring the Times and CNN from the White House press conference, you have a little more information about where the media stands these days. But we are so glad we have you and your publication in Tuolumne County.

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