Jason Chaffetz’s Town Hall: A Constituent’s Account
While I am no stranger to politics, I’ve always been a bit of an armchair quarterback. I voted in the last three major elections, but never paid attention to local politics. Before Trump’s election, I probably couldn’t even have told you I was actually in Chaffetz’s district. I’d define myself politically as a progressive, but I do tend to lean more towards moderation and facts over emotional activism. And yet this past Thursday, I found myself trudging down to Brighton High school, a mere mile from my home, leaving my young kids with my husband/babysitter and the dubious instruction to forage for dinner by themselves.
This was my first town hall event. I went to urge the congressman to take action in opening an investigation into the abuse of executive power in the Trump administration and to express my concern over his disregard for education, environmental protection, and more.
There has been lots of media coverage of the event, mostly by people who weren’t actually there. What was my take?
The room was definitely not stacked in Chaffetz’s favor, despite allegations that it would be. The auditorium held about 1,000 people and a very clear majority were there to support public lands, peppered with teachers, women’s right’s activists, and other constituents. The crowd had begun gathering as much as two hours before the event, but were friendly, calm, and subdued.
Tensions began when it became apparent that despite as many as fifty open seats in the auditorium, hundreds of people had been prevented from entering the venue. Large sections were taped off with rows and rows of empty seats. People inside the auditorium began messaging people outside to say there were open seats and I think this escalated the situation at the building’s entrance, where people thought they were being unfairly denied access. This resulted in the only arrest of the evening, which as I understand was a miscommunication with police.
By the time the fire marshal took the stage, the room had begun to chant, “let them in.” He patiently explained it wasn’t his decision and deferred to the police, who had made the recommendation to shut the doors. It’s still unknown why that decision was made or the rationale behind it. The fire marshal wasn’t able to offer those details to an increasingly agitated crowd.
Jason took the stage amid a thunder of boos, but let’s give credit where credit is due. The man walked out onto the stage by himself. Held the mic and waded through nothing but an hour and a half of unrelenting antagonism. He deserved every ounce of it but nevertheless, he showed up. He insisted that the room stand and recite the pledge of allegiance. There was NO resistance to this and it was respectful and quiet until the very end, where constituents raised their voices to emphasize “justice for all.” Chaffetz commented to the Deseret News later that these “paid agitators” shouted and were disruptive during the pledge of allegiance. That’s a blatant lie. You can watch the video to confirm it.
Jason said he was there to listen. That’s not what I saw. Chaffetz talked a lot. About himself. I heard many personal stories about how he cares, but no details about his investigations or legislation. Time and time again he used a feel good anecdote to avoid answering any questions directly. Several times he took questions of a Muslim woman, who he had met with personally the day before, and he seemed to be using her to grandstand a bit, showing off that he’d met with the Muslim community. She asked him several questions that he danced around and when she reprimanded him for misrepresenting her comments, he moved onto another question.
No one had a mic but Jason and that was obviously on purpose. The idea was to control the dialogue and to make it difficult for people to hear or rally around a comment. It gave Chaffetz control of the room and placed constituents at a clear disadvantage. Much of the shouting could have been avoided if in fact someone had a mic, which was probably intentional.
At one point, the entire crowd erupted into chants of “Do Your Job!” It lasted almost a minute and it was basically the best. Also clear highlights were the questions by the retired schoolteacher who wanted to hear what Jason’s line in the sand would be for President Trump, and a question about the environment from a young girl. Chaffetz felt free to exploit the opportunity to shake her hand for the cameras and encouraged her to stay involved, but never directly answered her question.
I did have some difficulties during the town hall with agitators and at one point, approached a police officer to ask for help. Behind me sat one of Chaffetz’s few supporters. A woman who never stood or asked a question or raised her voice. Instead, every time someone else stood and asked a question, she murmured insults and even at some points, racial slurs, specifically against the Muslim and Latino women who spoke. The officer I talked to about it said he could do nothing unless she made a specific threat. That was the only person that I met that evening who claimed to be a Chaffetz supporter and she was the only one who appeared intent on agitating the people around her.
When Jason talked about his mother and father dying of cancer, much of the room broke out in shouts not at him, but to encourage others to be respectful. It was as much about dissent between the people in the room, who seemed caught between their need to be respectful and their frustration at his unwillingness to provide direct answers.
Worst of all were the taunts. Chaffetz may have thought he was being funny, but it came off as patronizing. “How you like Betsy DeVos? You’re going love what I’m going to do next!” All of that nonsense was exceptionally immature on his part. I understand it was a provoking situation but to belittle and jeer at your own constituents is spectacularly arrogant.
When it became clear Jason was not going to stay for the full time, the crowd erupted in boos but dispersed calmly. I felt the overall tone was one of disappointment. We’d hoped to arrive and find someone who cared about us. Who was ready to listen. I’m not sure we expected him to change on the spot. If he had even seemed willing at all to consider our concerns, that would have been encouraging. That’s not what happened. Jason was already spinning the event for local media before he hit the car, painting this as a situation where he was the victim of bullies and paid protesters who treated him with disrespect.
That’s not what I saw. I saw a room full of people who are discovering that if they don’t turn their passion into action, they’ll lose what they care about. This time, politics is personal. For everyone. I live between a Trump supporter and my Iranian neighbor. I’ve had to look my son in the eye when he asks me if his friend at school will get deported and tell him I don’t know. I’ve picked up my daughter from preschool every day last week when the inversion was bad and felt guilty, wondering if I’m slowly damning her to a shorter life simply by choosing to live here in some of the worst air in America. I put my husband on a plane to Turkey yesterday for a business trip. I hope he comes back. But I worry in ways I never have. Ways that are personal. Things that Jason just doesn’t seem to understand. I had hoped for connection last night on some basic human level. I think we all did. I walked away as uncertain as ever, sure only that the safety of my friends and family and neighbors relies on me. It’s all up to us now. The ordinary people. Moms and teachers, college students and vets, we have to do everything that we can to ensure men like Chaffetz, who place politics over people, don’t get to have our voice and our power in Congress.
Mr. Chaffetz believes his seat in Congress is safe. But in Trump’s America, no one is safe. I guess we’ll just have to prove it to him in 2018. Oh, and all those paid protesters? They live so far away that I watched them walk home in droves as I went to my car.
Last night, I faxed this to Mr. Chaffetz’s office after calling to complain about his comments depicting his own constituents as paid protesters.
I’ve also invited him to dinner repeatedly on Twitter, so he can confirm that I am in fact a constituent. One who is decidedly unhappy about having a representative who demeans and disregards community input. So far, like the phones in both his DC and Provo office, Chaffetz remains unresponsive.