The seesawing crescendo of boos, cheers, one-liners and comebacks from the crowded pews seemed close to spinning out of control when U.S. Rep. Doug Collins set down his microphone, sat down quietly and asked for a “collective deep breath.”
He represents the most conservative congressional district in Georgia — Donald Trump carried this North Georgia territory by nearly 80 percent — but the Democrats here are passionate, and they came to Collins’ town hall this week in force to give him an earful.
The tumult at Wednesday’s meeting only echoed other rocky GOP events across the nation, where divided crowds unleashed their pent-up anger, or in some cases gathered to display their unflinching support, on their representatives.
Before the 80-minute session ended, Collins’ constituents peppered him with tough questions about the ill-fated attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, pressed him on his support for the president and asked, several times in written form, about whether he would put “country before party.”
Their town hall stand ended when Marisa Pyle, who had sparred with Collins repeatedly throughout the event, flung open a sign declaring “Collins voted to kill me.” Officers quickly snagged it and escorted her out of the courtroom, triggering a planned walkout by dozens of others. Some chanted “resist” as they marched out.
After they filed out, Collins turned to the remaining 100 or so people at the Gainesville Justice Center to say he was “just glad that they were here, and I’m glad that you were here.”
“I do not believe evil on anyone who was here who disagrees with me,” he said to warm applause, “and I would pray they would not believe evil on me because I disagree with them.”
Republican congressmen from across the nation were forced on the defensive as they returned to their districts during the annual August recess, often treated to feisty homecomings from Trump critics infuriated with GOP policies and fellow conservatives upset about a failure to fulfill campaign promises.
And for Collins and the relatively few other lawmakers holding in-person town halls during the break, the meetings tested their policy stances, their loyalty to the president and their diplomacy skills.
Town hall bickering
A Gainesville pastor and attorney first elected to Congress in 2012, Collins is one of just four Georgia lawmakers who has held or scheduled in-person town halls during the recess.
Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has set a Monday event at Kennesaw State University. Protesters have already announced plans to demonstrate at the Isakson event, decrying his vote to replace Obamacare.
And U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Pooler pharmacist who seems to relish the events, scheduled nine town halls during the August recess in his coastal district, which stretches across southeast Georgia.
His events featured a PowerPoint presentation that insisted the repeal of the Affordable Care Act was still alive — “not giving up,” it said — and touted conservative votes in the chamber.
At one in Brunswick, he faced sharp questions about whether he had a “death wish” for his constituents because he supported the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“Obviously, no, I do not have a death wish — what I have a wish for is accessible, affordable, patient-centered health care,” Carter said, according to The Brunswick News.
Critics of the president’s policies have used these town halls and other forums as a chance to vent their anger at Trump and his allies in Congress, flooding their phone lines, channeling an avalanche of emails their way and holding protests.
Supporters, too, have shown up in force to lend their voices. They’ve showered GOP lawmakers with applause, asked friendly questions, and tried to hush interruptions and temper demonstrations. At Wednesday’s town hall in Gainesville, several tea party groups and local GOP officials showed up early to stake out seats.
Cheers and jeers
Almost as soon as Collins’ event began, it veered toward a shouting match. An early question, read verbatim by a Collins aide, was critical of the lawmaker’s support for the Obamacare repeal. His answer — that the system was irreparably broken and needed a rewrite — was met with a wave of jeers.
“Shame!” yelled one. “You’re killing people,” was another. “Why do you want to kill my dad? He’s a cancer survivor,” said a third.
One of the Democrats in the crowd was Josh McCall, a Hall County educator who is challenging Collins next year. He compared the liberal outpouring at the town hall to the beginnings of a broader movement.
“It’s like the French Revolution. People are meeting and discovering one another,” he said. “We’re a grassroots movement, and we know the party works best when people use it as a channel for progress.”
As the demonstrators interrupted, others in the crowd tried to quiet them with chants to “let him finish” — and other, more biting, words. Collins, meanwhile, waited until the commotion died down.
“Yelling at me,” he said, “is not going to change my position.”
And so it went, with questions on North Korea, agricultural challenges and economic debates inevitably turning back to the same topic. At one point, Collins turned to the crowd to make a declaration.
“I have never said — and never will say — that the Affordable Care Act has not helped people,” he said, adding that rising insurance premium rates and a “broken” system are beyond repairing. “For those that are helped, there have been many that haven’t been helped. They’ve been hurt.”
After the town hall was over, and as demonstrators chanted outside, Collins repeated that he was glad he decided to host the town hall — an August tradition of his. And he made clear that the response from the crowd didn’t deter him from seeking to repeal Obamacare.
“We need to keep working on health care. It’s a promise we made. We can’t simply leave it,” he said, adding that there’s an appetite among conservatives in the House to revive the debate.
“But I can tell you this: There’s no appetite in the House to simply patch Obamacare and move on.”