“Senator, you suck!” “Party hack!”
Those were just a few of the epithets hurled at Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner during his first in-person town hall in more than a year, held on the campus of Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs.
For more than an hour, Gardner took questions from a largely hostile crowd of hundreds about health care, climate change, net neutrality, hate groups, money in politics and even whether legal marijuana users should be able to own guns.
The first-term senator from Yuma who is up for re-election in 2020 opened with the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Over the weekend, he was among the first Republicans in Congress to demand that President Trump issue a stronger condemnation of the white supremacists who marched on the University of Virginia’s campus.
“I don’t know about you but I think it’s about time that asses with Nazi flags go back to their hole,” Gardner said during Tuesday morning’s town hall. “We will not stand for it.”
The line got applause, but the loudest, however, came when Tom Sullivan, a father whose son was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting, asked Gardner to denounce “the peddlers of the alt-right messaging who are employed in the White House,” listing Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller by name. “I’m not going to ask the president to fire somebody,” Gardner replied to loud boos.
If Gardner thought he was going to win the crowd over early with a Nazi-bashing one-liner, though, that wasn’t happening. Boos erupted often when he sidestepped questions or said things like, “I have not seen Al Gore’s movie and I probably won’t watch it.”
One heckler called him a “stupid idiot.”
For months, constituents and activist groups have pressured Gardner to hold an in-person town hall, especially since he was he was one of 13 Republicans helping to craft a healthcare bill to replace Obamacare. Hundreds protested outside his office in Denver. “Missing” fliers with his face on them appeared in Colorado Springs. Disabled demonstrators were arrested for occupying one of his regional offices for multiple days. Organizers have held mock town halls with a “cardboard Cory” cutout. Outside the event Tuesday in the Springs, a woman in a chicken costume greeted attendees near the door. Gardner planned to hold two similar events, one in Lakewood and another in Greeley the same day.
On healthcare, Gardner said Tuesday he wants to develop ideas that will allow states to tailor policies to their individual needs and develop risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions. “They don’t work!” one man yelled.
Tort reform to end frivolous lawsuits, Gardner said, could curb costs. “Leave Obama out of it!” one woman shouted when Gardner blamed complications of the Affordable Care Act for the nation’s healthcare woes. When he assembled a chart on an easel showing bar graphs of rising insurance rates, the crowd boiled over.
“He’s lying!” a man shouted. “Shut up!” hollered another. “You shut up,” another barked back.
When Gardner asked how many in the room supported a single-payer healthcare system, a majority of hands rose. When he said such a system would cost the U.S. $32 trillion, the boos bubbled up and a woman shouted “That’s a lie!”
One elderly lady who said she has restless leg syndrome and chronic hip pain said she would like a medical marijuana card but that would mean she couldn’t own guns. (While state law is silent on the issue, a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told The Colorado Independent, “Under federal law, a marijuana user cannot legally possess a firearm.”)
Gardner said he doesn’t think that’s right.
“The question on medical marijuana, look, I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and I think this is something the state has allowed under state law that we shouldn’t deny access to people with their Second Amendment rights,” Gardner said during the town hall.
Gardner, who represents swing-state Colorado where Hillary Clinton won by a modest 5 percentage points, currently votes with Trump’s agenda 93.8 percent of the time, according to data by FiveThirtyEight, which tracks congressional votes.
During the town hall Tuesday, a soft-spoken young man said he had a simple question for the senator: “Are you comfortable that Donald Trump is fit to lead the country?”
Americans elected Trump, Gardner said, adding, “I believe he is fit.”
Asked about fracking, Gardner said he believed the state has handled it safely. On net neutrality, he said, “I don’t want the government to try to regulate the Internet.”
A man named Bill Ray said he is a Republican who is “very concerned” with the party, telling Gardner he feels a good part of the division in America comes from the White House and a lack of transparency from members of Congress who are crafting bills behind closed doors.
Gardner, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, spun to U.S. foreign policy and how the country should double down on a peaceful denuclearization of North Korea. He said he wanted to impose sanctions on 10 Chinese companies that he says prop up North Korea’s economy.
Following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision that allowed a flood of corporate and union money to pour into elections, one man told Gardner, to loud cheers, that “It feels as though we now have a purchased political system.” What to do about the influence of the billionaire industrialist Koch Brothers and Big Business, he asked.
“It’s obscene that a presidential race raises over a billion dollars,” Gardner said. “We’ve got to find a way with bipartisan support to respect and maintain free speech while also figuring out if there’s a way where we don’t have a billion dollars being spent in just a presidential race.”
Looking out at a crowd sporting Resist T-shirts and waving green “Agree” and red “Disagree” signs, Gardner gave a nod to those engaged in civil activism. He worried about what would happen if the government required a campaign finance disclosure form for every sign an activist tacked on a telephone pole.
“You had a secret meeting at the Broadmoor with the Koch brothers!” a woman shouted. “Corporations are not people,” yelled one man. “Address the $20,000 Betsy DeVos gave you and then you voted for her,” said another.
Near his closing remarks, Gardner said this: “Donald Trump, the president, lost Colorado by five or six points. So there are people who support the president. There are people who voted for him.”
“Are you afraid of the president?” a woman shouted. “You can’t work with hatred,” yelled another.
Following the event, outside in the parking lot, retired educator Anne O’Rourke said she was pleased to finally get to see a man who many have urged to hold an in-person town hall actually hold one.
“What is disappointing to me is how he can speak quite elegantly about his concern for people’s healthcare and yet to have voted in favor of repeal that would have allowed 20 million people to lose their healthcare,” she said. “[There’s a] disconnect between his caring and sincere manner, which I truly respect, and his policies, which are really discounting. You watch the guy’s style, he’s got it down 100 percent. If you could say ‘Take your style, watch it, and align your policies with that caring, supportive nature,’ then we’d have another senator that I could support.”
On the other hand, Bob Grossman, who said he thinks Trump is the best president the country has had in years, said he doesn’t agree with some of the pushback on Trump from Gardner.
“I think he’s doing his best,” Grossman said of Trump. “Some of these who are against him I’d love to give a swift kick.”
Glynese Northam, who works for a progressive group called Citizens for Hope in the Springs, says since the election her group has shown up to Gardner’s local office each Tuesday urging him to hold a public meeting and face his constituents.
“I”m satisfied that he had a town hall— for that I’m grateful,” she said. “His positions I disagree with.”
Another thing that makes her grateful: “I think most people don’t want to see the hate— and I’m grateful that as a black woman I am surrounded by white people who don’t want to see this.”