Harris town hall turns raucous
WYE MILLS — Some described it as democracy at work, testy as most of the crowd was Friday night, March 31, at Chesapeake College’s Todd Performing Arts Center for U.S. Rep. Andy Harris’ town hall meeting.
Crowds and lines began to build for the event well before doors opened to the public at 5 p.m.
Harris, R-Md.-1st, announced the town hall date in February as a way to talk about Congressional Republicans’ repeal of the Affordable Care Act. A Republican health care alternative was offered but was pulled recently when, just before the vote was scheduled, there was deemed not enough support for the legislation for it to pass.
Harris, an anesthesiologist, has been in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act, and it is something he has campaigned on in past elections. He said Friday night the Republican alternative didn’t do enough to reduce premiums immediately.
Harris started his town hall the way he usually does, with a slide presentation showing charts of the federal deficit.
Then the booing and shouting from the crowd started.
Harris continued through his slides between interruptions from the crowd, full mostly of local progressive and Democrat groups, shouting at him to get to the question-and-answer part of the town hall.
Questions from the crowd were drawn from a box full of note cards collected before the event’s start at 6 p.m. Harris got through nearly 30 questions before the event came to an end 15 minutes past the set end time of 7 p.m.
The questions revolved around a few general themes.
More than a half dozen questions were related to health care, and another half dozen related to various policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Some also touched on the environment, partisanship in Congress, immigration, education and recent acts of Congress.
Beyond the explanations offered by Harris, the overall answers to three big topics — education, health care and the environment, which have been points of division between Republicans and Democrats — were more or less the same: Send the responsibility back to the states.
On House Resolution 610, a bill co-sponsored by Harris, he said it takes federal money that supports increased nutritional standards in schools and sends it back to the states so local jurisdictions can decide for themselves what is best for their student population.
“It says the federal government has got to get out of the education business, because it doesn’t help,” Harris said, a statement met with jeers from a large portion of the crowd. “The best education decisions are not made in Washington, D.C., in the federal triangle; they’re made within the local jurisdictions.”
Harris said kids simply do not eat the healthier food offered to them at lunch and much of it is thrown away. Much of the crowd met the statement with boos.
“I work in a low-income school, and some kids, that’s the only meals that they get, are their breakfasts and their lunch (at school),” said Debbie Krueger, a Kent Island resident with Together We Will-Delmarva. “He doesn’t let women make choices about their health care, but he’s going to let kids make choices about their lunches.”
On health care, questions ranged from why he supported the Republican Party proposal to defund Planned Parenthood to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
People from the crowd shouted “single-payer” every time a question about the Affordable Care Act repeal and the Republican alternative was brought up. A singlepayer system is one in which a quasi-public entity finances health care for all.
Harris said there could be amendments to a Republican Party alternative to health care reform that will lower insurance premiums significantly, rather than the former proposal, which he said would not have reduced premiums for a few years.
“That wasn’t fast enough for us. We think there are ways, especially with a properly constructed high-risk pool, that those premiums do come down, they come down immediately, and they do what we want it to do, which is to make sure that people with pre-existing conditions don’t worry at all about ... whether they’re going to have coverage or not,” he said.
“I think a lot of the Democrats are going to like the high-risk pool mechanism. We had it in Maryland here, a highly Democratic state. It worked very well to get premiums down for people with pre-existing conditions, and I think it’s going to work well on a federal level,” he said.
On the environment, the crowd cheered for Harris when he said he supported fully funding the Chesapeake Bay Program at $73 million and spending it in a way that helps farmers reduce pollution, rather than environmental overregulation.
But one question dealt with Harris’ support of the Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017, another bill he co-sponsored, which rolls back federal laws that deem carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and flourinated gases as air pollutants impacting climate change.
Harris said he believes in climate change but also said the federal government has to strike a balance between environmental regulation and not hurting the economy, pointing to slow economic growth for the past 10 years. But he again was met with boos from much of the crowd.
“I guess we have no coal miners in this audience,” Harris said, echoing an argument by Trump that the coal industry has been crippled by environmental regulations.
The crowd was not just full of progressive and Democrat groups, including several newly formed groups like Talbot Rising and different Indivisible groups from around the Shore. Harris supporters attended, as well, though they made up a smaller portion of the crowd.
“His comments and statements were right along with the political party. They were true, they were logical ... and respectful,” said Queen Anne’s County Republican Central Committee Chairman Tim Kingston.
Harris supporter Frank Mirabile called the booing crowd rude and disrespectful.
“They wouldn’t allow him to talk, and every time he tried to give some sort of logical answer with data behind it, they went off in their little ‘Indivisible’ rants when it was all emotional-bound, instead of listening to the fact,” Mirabile said.
Harris said after the town hall that his positions on the issues are nothing new, pointing to his opinions on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and his voting record to reduce EPA funding after the agency “overstepped their bounds” on regulating the environment.
“The people in the First Congressional District, especially on the Eastern Shore, know that I protect the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I protect the industries vital to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and sometimes those run popular with people in the district,” Harris said. “This was not a collection of farmers, but if you asked a question about the EPA in a collection of farmers, you get a very different response.”
Talbot Rising member Michael Pullen said Harris’ answers and the crowd’s reaction were expected, “because people are upset with the policies that Congressman Harris has sponsored and continues to sponsor.”
“There is a movement afoot. I think it’s a grassroots movement of people that are becoming engaged and becoming active and are expressing their concerns, and it’s a good thing,” Pullen said. “This is democracy, and the people are the source of the power, and I think we’re getting to the point where people recognize that power is there and they’re waking up to it.”
Now that Republicans have control of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, Pullen said the question remains what positive programs Harris will get behind to make health care work for people.
Pullen, a supporter of universal health care, said every major country in the world provides universal health care as a right, except the United States.
“The Republican plan to repeal it and replace it with a program that would have cost Maryland $2 billion a year, ultimately throwing 24 million people off of health care and raise the premiums to boot — that’s not a very positive solution,” he said. “The fact that they chose to put this together in such a short order also indicates to me that ... there wasn’t enough time to do it right.”
“Medicaid doesn’t work. We like the numbers, we like to say so many people are insured, but in fact, if you have a Medicaid insurance card and you can’t get good care and you can’t get specialist care, that’s not really getting health care,” Harris said. “I saw this firsthand in almost every environment that I’ve worked in.”
But overall, a majority of the crowd was aggravated Friday night, said Joyce Scharch, with the Democratic Women’s Club of Talbot County.
She said her group has tried to contact Harris multiple times, showing up at one of his offices and making daily calls on certain issues, like Planned Parenthood defunding.
“I wish he would have the nerve to talk to us one on one. We email him, we call his offices — we get form letters back,” Scharch said. “We have no personal response from the man at all, and he represents us. We have worked long and hard to try to communicate with him.”
Harris recently held office hours at his Bel Air office, and Scharch’s group was able to secure a meeting with a Shore representative of Harris after initially showing up to his office on Kent Island and being met with a locked door.
But Scharch said there is still a lack of communication between Harris and his constituents, and their aggravation finally was given a chance for release at the town hall.
The criticism over a lack of communication is one Harris takes and points to his record of holding not just town halls in person but town halls over the telephone, a few of which he held recently that he said could reach 4,000 to 5,000 people per call. The topics at his telephone town halls and the one in person March 31 were “roughly identical,” Harris said, just without booing and crowd interruptions.
“These are folks from the district, they’re interested, they want to participate in democracy, and that’s what we saw tonight. We saw that you can agree to disagree. It’s nonviolent. People came out and expressed their frustrations. That’s part of the American system,” Harris said.
“I celebrate that. Is it comfortable doing that? Would I rather that I had a cheering crowd? Yeah, but this is America. This is what we get. This is not Russia, this is America,” he said.
“These are folks from the district, they’re interested, they want to participate in democracy and that’s what we saw tonight. We saw that you can agree to disagree. It’s nonviolent. People came out and expressed their frustrations. That’s part of the American system. I celebrate that. Is it comfortable doing that? Would I rather that I had a cheering crowd? Yeah, but this is America. This is what we get. This is not Russia, this is America.”
Rep. Andy Harris, R-1st District
Dorotheann Sadusky, of Kent Island, left, waves a sign as constituents stand in line for Rep. Andy Harris’ town hall meeting. Sadusky is president of the Democratic Club of Queen Anne’s County.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, speaks during his town hall meeting March 31 at Chesapeake College.
The auditorium at the Todd Performing Arts Center at Chesapeake College is full to capacity for Congressman Andy Harris’ town hall meeting on Friday.
Tombstone signs decorate the lawn outside the Todd Performing Arts Center at Chesapeake College before the Andy Harris town meeting on Friday evening.