Rep. Tom Garrett, R-5th, held his first in-person forum with his congressional constituents Friday at the University of Virginia, well-attended by both supporters and opponents.
The forum at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy was preceded by a tense demonstration outside the entrance of the building, with supporters and protesters shouting over one another in the rain, while several dozen police officers monitored the area.
During the actual event, many of the first-term congressman’s answers were met with boos and chants, but he was audibly praised by his supporters from time to time.
Allan Stam, dean of the Batten School, moderated the event, which focus on health care, Russian interference in the 2016 election, immigration and the budget.
Anticipation had been building up for the town hall as local political organizations had been pressuring Garrett to speak with them in person. Many had accused the congressman of avoiding his constituents and later criticized the logistics and rollout of the forum at UVa.
As Garrett was about to speak for the first time at the forum, he was abruptly cut off by people carrying a banner and chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho; white supremacy has got to go.” They were then taken out of the room.
Garrett then defended the decision to hold the forum in a room smaller than some wanted because of more raucous town halls across the country in which elected officials were shouted down.
Garrett did say he’d look into a larger venue in the future.
But even as the forum was well underway, chanting from the same group of supporters and protesters outside the building could be heard inside.
The first series of questions in the forum were about health care. Garrett is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group whose members were against the recent legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act because they believe it didn't go far enough.
Garrett has defended that decision to oppose the bill, which was later pulled, but said he still wants to see a repeal and replacement of the current health care law.
Garrett also was asked about the recent reports about Russian involvement in last year’s election and was pressed whether he would support the removal of officials of President Donald Trump’s administration had colluded with Russia.
He agreed they should be removed in that case, which was met with applause, but he said that there’s still much more investigating that needs to be done first.
As the event came to a close, Stam thanked Garrett for his time and added he hopes to hold the congressman to his commitment to attend another event like this.
Garrett agreed, adding that he hopes to have an honest discourse with his constituents, which did not assuage the anger of some critics.
Before the town hall started, protesters gathered outside the Batten School to demonstrate against Garrett and his policies. But they were met with supporters, including Jason Kessler, a local blogger and right-wing provocateur.
Corey Stewart, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, also was present outside of the forum.
The back-and-forth between both parties was tense at times, but just a few yards away was a nonpartisan democracy fair. Groups such as the University Democrats, College Republicans at UVa and Indivisible Charlottesville, a local progressive advocacy group, set up booths with information about their respective organizations.
“This is proof that American is a democracy,” said Brett Curtis, president of the University Democrats.
The University Democrats also held a counter event called “Tom, Let’s Talk,” which started on the South Lawn and made its way over to the Amphitheater as a protest to the “exclusionary town hall,” Curtis said.
Leslie Blackhall, one of the many speakers at the rally, said she didn’t want to be sad or scared about Trump’s presidency; she preferred to be mad and engaged.
“But tonight I actually felt sad, I really felt a little sad about how all these people came out, in the rain, and we're here trying to talk to each other and there's a whole bunch of other people there,” she said, “and I just want to acknowledge it’s sort of sad that we’re not able to all talk to each other, and I wish we could.”
Before the event started, Milan Bharadwaj, a first-year student and member of the College Republicans, said he hoped the event could potentially alleviate some fears that those on the left have about Garrett’s policies.
“They'll see that he's really not just a candidate for the majority of people, he's a candidate for everybody and he wants to enact policies that will help everybody regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of race or wealth,” he said. “He wants to just help people.”
Ed Yensho, a Greene County resident, came to UVa not to attend the forum — he didn't even enter the ticket lottery system — but to show his support for the congressman and let others know that there are people in Central Virginia who support him.
He hopes the forum can help “crank down the rhetoric, tone it down a little bit.”
“We’ll see,” he said.
Indivisible Charlottesville, in a statement Friday night, said that the group was pleased Garrett “finally showed up” in the district, giving constituents a chance to challenge him on certain issues.
“Of course, tonight's event doesn't change the fact that the lottery rules discriminated against people who work during the day or don't live near UVa — nor the fact that he could and should have made this town hall bigger when thousands of people have demonstrated they want to talk to him,” the statement said.
Daily Progress staff writer Allison Wrabel contributed to this story.