Democrats capitalize on GOP no-shows
California lawmakers join wave of ‘empty chair’ town halls in bid to regain House.
Rep. Linda Sanchez attended a town hall Thursday night, but it wasn’t on her home turf.
The Democrat appeared at a forum for constituents of Republican Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton at the invitation of liberal groups working to oust him next year.
Royce was invited but declined to attend the event, the latest in a series of “empty chair” town halls organized by constituents clamoring for face time with GOP members of Congress.
With most audience members in agreement with Sanchez’s left-leaning policy positions, the event unfolded more like a strategy session for liberal activists looking to take back the House in 2018.
Fielding questions on fighting efforts to repeal Obamacare, stopping deportations of immigrants in the country illegally and the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, Sanchez repeatedly circled back to the importance of the midterm elections next year.
“The only way we move a progressive agenda is if we get a majority back, that’s the first step,” Sanchez told a crowd of about 200 people in a Fullerton community center. “We have to be smart and think about how do we increase the number of members of Congress that ... can get us that run to win the ballgame and that’s what we need to focus on in the 2018 election cycle.”
Also in attendance were Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who represents part of Royce’s district, and several candidates hoping to unseat him, including Democrats Phil Janowicz, Mai Khanh Tran, Sam Jammal and Gil Cisneros and independent candidate Julio Castaneda. They shook hands with attendees, and some posed questions to Sanchez and Quirk-Silva.
Royce spokesman Steven Smith said the congressman attended another event Thursday night, but Smith wouldn’t describe the nature of that meeting, citing security reasons.
He said the congressman would be meeting one-onone with local groups throughout August and that constituents can reach out to his office via email, letters and phone calls.
Dave Gilliard, Royce’s campaign consultant, said Democratic members of Congress would “be better served” staying in their own districts. “A member of Congress from another district that [voters] haven’t heard of isn’t going to help matters much.”
Sanchez is the latest Democrat in Congress to cross district lines and field questions at a nearby colleague’s town hall. On Tuesday, Rep. Ted Lieu received a hero’s welcome at a meeting organized by local activists hoping to unseat Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa.
Earlier this year, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney challenged his Democratic colleagues to go “into every district where a Republican who supported Trumpcare won’t hold a town hall meeting and do it for them.”
Rep. Judy Chu of Monterey Park attended a similar event in Rep. Steve Knight’s Los Angeles County district in June.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has quietly encouraged such efforts in private meetings, according to a congressional aide familiar with the meetings who asked not to be named because the aide is not permitted to speak to reporters. So far, Democratic lawmakers have participated in at least 13 “adopt-a-district” town hall meetings, according to Town Hall Project, a progressive group that tracks and publicizes town halls. There have been 96 emptychair town halls without Republicans.
In an interview before Thursday’s forum, Sanchez said she thinks more Democrats should participate in town halls in neighboring districts if they’re invited. “Clearly there’s a hunger for information on the part of the public about how to be engaged politically,” said Sanchez, who represents the 38th Congressional District, which borders Royce’s district and includes Whittier and Lakewood.
Royce represents one of several Republican districts won by Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election, and is one of the Democrats’ top priorities for the midterms. Although political prognosticators generally regard Royce as fairly safe, the number of registered Democrats in the Orange County district has been increasing, and Republicans’ voter registration edge is now less than 2%.
ASSEMBLYWOMAN Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), left, and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier) appear at a town hall held by liberal activists in the district of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who did not attend.