Jeff Jardine

Can Denham handle heat of town hall critics? We’ll find out Monday night

Congressman Jeff Denham speaks to residents of Turlock during a ceremony to honor local veterans in Central Park on Veterans Day in Turlock on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Congressman Jeff Denham speaks to residents of Turlock during a ceremony to honor local veterans in Central Park on Veterans Day in Turlock on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Modesto Bee file

Town hall meetings once resembled chamber of commerce mixers. Politicians came back to their home districts, answered softball questions, schmoozed, shook hands and posed for photos. No longer.

Now these events fall in tone and demeanor somewhere between contentious school board meetings and episodes of “The Jerry Springer Show.” They’ve become even more testy over the past year or so with the presidential campaign, immigration reform, health care and now the California gas tax debates angering folks on all sides.

Last week, his constituents greeted Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, with the very same words he barked at President Obama in 2009 as the president laid out his health care plan to a joint session of Congress: “You lie!” Other legislators have canceled, refused to hold town halls or simply failed to appear as advertised, including an event in Wyoming where the citizens placed portraits of the AWOL pols on chairs and ranted at them anyway.

In contrast, there’s Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, the host of four town halls thus far, including one last week in which he faced chants of “Do your job!” and boos. A glutton for punishment? Maybe. But while they might detest his politics, some of his staunchest detractors begrudgingly give him his due for showing up and letting them vent even though he makes it clear they won’t change his mind on the issues.

Which brings us to the annual (or usually annual, being as they skipped it last year) Government Night meeting at 6 p.m. Monday in Denair, where 10th Congressional District Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, will take part in his first real town hall event of the President Trump Era. Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who organized the first Government Night in 2011, will moderate, with state 12th District Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, and Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth sharing the stage. But Denham is the main attraction, whether he likes it or not.

He has taken a beating in the media during the presidential campaign for his tacit approval of Donald Trump’s behavior toward women. Some constituents wrote to the Bee’s Opinions pages, criticizing him for not having a town hall event long ago. Responding to an email a couple of months ago from a constituent who wanted to know why, Denham said his “top priority is to ensure the Central Valley’s voice is heard and not suppressed by the bullying cries of outraged Bay Area residents who want to impose their opinions and way of life on our community.”

Outsiders would have had to take a number and get in line. There are plenty of district residents who want answers on the future of their heath care and other issues.

He’s made mostly unpublicized appearances within the district, staged some controlled teleconference town halls and hosted a series of meetings with small groups of people at his district office in Modesto that drew criticism because, attendees said, they were short in duration and restrictive in scope.

Protests in his neighborhood and at his office might or might not have convinced him to participate in Monday’s town hall, which requires folks to preregister online, and admittance will require a valid California ID. Those from out of the district will be allowed in only if seats are available.

Whatever the reason, he finally agreed to do it. In fact, Chiesa said that while the meeting date catered to Denham’s schedule, the congressman is the one who wanted it in the largest available venue, that being the Larsa Banquet Hall on Monte Vista Avenue. Chiesa said more than 500 people had registered as of Thursday afternoon. The hall holds about 800 comfortably, 900 not as comfortably. And it promises to be uncomfortable at times.

While Denham no doubt will have his share of supporters, a group consisting of Valley progressives and Democrats accused him of ducking them by avoiding a town hall until after the scheduled vote to repeal Obamacare – the one that didn’t happen because Republicans couldn’t muster the votes. They ripped him for holding the town hall in Denair, “the extreme southeast portion of the 10th District, and as far as possible from the majority of its major population centers ... . This will make attendance very inconvenient for the majority of his constituents, and all but impossible for people using public transportation. The (6 p.m.) start time also guarantees that most commuters living in CA-10 will not be able to attend. The meeting is also scheduled for only one hour.”

In a news release announcing a demonstration outside Larsa Hall on Monday evening, members of Stanislaus Resistance also took issue with the format, saying, “Constituents will only be allowed to ask questions through index cards which will be screened and read aloud by a moderator.” And they say the inclusion of Flora and Soiseth just lessens the time constituents will have to address Denham.

The dialogue, like at the rest of these events, will be heated. That is OK, Chiesa said, so long as people respect others’ rights to their opinions and keep it civil. After all, the meeting is a town hall, not a town brawl.

“There’s nothing wrong with being passionate or making a statement,” he said. “I’m probably going to get skewered for supporting the gas tax. He’ll (Denham will) be questioned on immigration and the ACA (Obamacare).”

Lots of questions most likely, and some will be very pointed. After all, Denham and his constituents have a lot of catching up to do.

Government Night Town Hall

When: 6 p.m. Monday, April 17

Where: Larsa Hall, 2107 E. Monte Vista Ave., Denair

To register: