Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson points to someone he knows in the crowd as he prepares to hold his town hall meeting Monday at Kennesaw State University. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Isakson faces frustrated voters at Kennesaw town hall

Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson was met by a thunderous crowd Monday in Kennesaw that heckled and shouted down many of the Republican’s remarks on health care, climate change and police brutality but cheered his swift denunciation of last weekend’s attacks in Charlottesville, Va.

Monday’s town hall at Kennesaw State University, on Isakson’s home turf of Cobb County, careened from the rocky to the uproarious as a largely unfriendly crowd took the rare opportunity to vent about President Donald Trump and the GOP agenda before a Republican member of Congress.

Attendees peppered the third-term senator with questions on everything from individual members of the Trump White House to gay rights and Isakson’s recent vote to overhaul Medicaid. Isakson was booed after he said “all lives matter” and as he explained his votes last month in favor of various Republican health care proposals, which he said were designed to set up negotiations with the House.

“You’ve got to get it to a conference committee or it’s not going to happen,” he said, as some in the crowd roared their displeasure. “I didn’t like it, but I voted for it. I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go unless I followed the road that led me there.”

The testy moments started even before the third-term Republican made his official entrance onto the stage and continued as Isakson turned to leave, when he was hit with shouts of “shame.”

KSU President Sam Olens, who introduced Isakson, was met with laughs and jeers after he mentioned Isakson’s position as the chairman on the Senate Ethics Committee.

“We’re here to have a civil discussion, ain’t we?” said Olens, a former state attorney general.

For his part, Isakson paused and let members of the crowd shout for a few seconds before stepping in with his answers. And even though the at-capacity crowd of 600 was testy, Isakson largely maintained control of the room.

“I’m trying to answer your question, but I don’t want to interrupt,” he snapped back as several members of the crowd jeered his initial answer to a question about health care, a topic that dominated Monday’s discussion.

“What’s your insurance policy?” one member of the crowd shouted. “We’re scared to death,” another said, referring to the GOP’s effort to repeal Obamacare.

Isakson is one of three Georgia members of Congress who have held in-person town halls during Congress’ August recess; U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter and Doug Collins are the others. Both House Republicans also faced fired-up crowds.

Isakson sought to ease some of the tensions at the start of the town hall, unequivocally condemning the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups behind the deadly violence last weekend in Charlottesville. His remarks drew a standing ovation.

Earlier in the day on GPB Radio, Isakson leveled sharp criticism at the president for failing to immediately condemn the racist organizers of this weekend’s fatal protest.

“If something that rises to that level of horror takes place, it should be expeditiously and quickly addressed by the leader of that country,” he said on “Political Rewind.”

At one point during Monday’s town hall, facing a biting question about cuts to disability services in the failed GOP health care plan, he showed his cane to the audience and said he recently became disabled. He was invoking the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease that he revealed a few years ago, and some in the crowd groaned.

“I know how lucky I am to live here,” he said, saying that Congress hasn’t cut funding for disability services yet. “And as far as I’m concerned, we’re not going to.”

And targeted with a question about whether humans contribute to climate change, Isakson said he was a “full believer” that carbon contributes to the rise in temperatures. But he was roundly booed — one person in the crowd cried “go back to school” — when he suggested it was impossible to pin rising temperatures solely on human activity.

Before Monday, neither of Georgia’s Republican U.S. senators had held a town hall since Trump’s November victory, a strategy that many other of the state’s GOP lawmakers have deployed.

Some have opted to meet with invite-only crowds. Others have used the more controlled telephone town hall format. Isakson held three of those this spring and summer, all of which were generally polite affairs. But some have criticized the strategy as a way of shutting out critics.

Ashley Grizzle Soeder, a 37-year-old magazine writer from Senoia, said Isakson needed “to see the people face to face.”

“I feel like over the phone they can kind of choose who they answer,” she said, “but with this they can’t really avoid directly speaking to them.”

Justin Kelley, a 31-year-old veteran and KSU student, said he was frustrated by the way the senator was treated.

“This is an elected official here to represent us and our voice,” he said. “The fact that a lot of people just kept interrupting him before he was allowed to make his point, it was utter contempt and disrespect, in my opinion.”

Several members of the crowd, even attendees who asked critical questions, thanked Isakson for holding the event.

One said, “It is outside of the city during rush hour, but I do appreciate you being here.”

Another added, “I know a lot of your colleagues don’t have the guts.”

Speaking to reporters after the event, Isakson found no problem with the sometimes testy crowd.

“I would encourage all 99 of my colleagues to jump in,” he said. “The water’s fine.”

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Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this article.

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