If Rep. Jeff Denham didn’t like the reception he got from constituents at the Larsa Banquet Hall in Denair on Tuesday night, he knows whom to blame: himself.
In the nearly six months since being elected to his third term in Congress, Denham failed to hold an open meeting that all of his constituents could attend. Instead, he made appearances at events where the audience could be limited or controlled, or he conducted call-in “tele-town halls” where questions could be screened. Unlike Rep. Tom McClintock, who has conducted five town halls in the neighboring 4th Congressional District, Denham has avoided his voters.
This game of hide-and-seek has drawn the national media’s attention, perhaps explaining why Politico, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and all of Sacramento’s TV stations sent reporters. It also explains why the meeting turned confrontational whenever Denham took the microphone.
Technically, this wasn’t a Town Hall, which worked in Denham’s favor. It was the annual “Government Night” hosted by Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who acted as master of ceremonies and who chose questions for each official to answer. Denham shared the stage with Chiesa, Assemblyman Heath Flora and Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth – whose support for Turlock’s refugee and LGBT communities drew loud applause and even shouts of “Run for Denham’s job.”
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Usually, “government nights” draw a few dozen constituents; this crowd exceeded 1,000.
From Modesto, Turlock, Manteca, Tracy and beyond most came to confront Denham. Still, about a quarter of the audience applauded his answers. It’s also likely there were a few out-of-towners sprinkled among the crowd. But no one needed to encourage local residents to express their themselves forcefully, intelligently and – most often – politely.
Even so, their frustration was obvious – and most of it can be laid at the feet of Donald Trump, whom Denham supported throughout the presidential campaign.
People are unhappy over the Trump administration’s attack on the Affordable Care Act, its efforts to stop fighting climate change, the wall, Trump’s deportation policies, his billionaire cabinet and appointment of an education secretary whose only qualifications are that she contributed to Trump and the senators who confirmed her.
Denham was frequently interrupted and often, he tried to calm the crowd with requests to “be respectful.” But many felt Denham’s failure to conduct town hall meetings symbolized a lack of respect for them.
So, they challenged Denham at nearly every turn – on energy, on Medicaid, on student loans and debt, on immigration reform and on investigating Donald Trump’s connections to Russia and the president’s refusal to divulge his income taxes.
When he tried to quip that he never demanded to see President Obama’s birth certificate so there was no need to see Trump’s taxes, few in the crowd found it funny. Even areas in which they should have found common ground – bringing the ACE train to Stanislaus, better water storage, his belief that modern man has contributed to climate change – Denham seldom got the kind of applause that could have been expected in a less volatile setting.
And when Denham said, wrongly, that “California is a right-to-work state,” the crowd was stunned, but then cheered when the next questioner corrected him and explained what it meant.
What brought 1,000 people out on a drizzling Monday night was, at last, the opportunity to be heard. After having been ignored for months, no one should blame them for speaking loudly.