The story went wide on the same night, with coverage from the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, the Boston Globe, CNN and MSNBC among other national media outlets… all versions of the same report: Things did not go as planned for Representative Jason Chaffetz’ (Republican – District 3) community meeting.
Stimulated by mailings from the Utah Republican Party and social media activism, it was quickly understood that the expected crowd would require a larger auditorium. So on a cloudy but dry and relatively warm Thursday night, the public arrived early and ready to respond to their U.S. congressman in a “town hall” format where the public is expected to take part.
They really did respond.
Utah’s party faithful said that the jeering and boisterous behavior was the result of outsiders attending who were not Chaffetz’ actual constituents. With a capacity crowd of 1,008 inside the Brighton High School auditorium and another 800 outside who weren’t allowed inside due to seating and egress limitations, security from the Cottonwood Heights police and other public safety officials was significant and helpful but not overbearing, with no arrests reported. Those attending were bi-partisans in a gerrymandered district, one which includes an affluent, progressive suburb of Salt Lake County called Cottonwood Heights (where skiing, hiking and mountain biking are all within 10-15 minutes and often accessible by public transportation). Chaffetz’ district also includes the severely conservative Utah County to the south, an area where people attend and work at Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Lehi where Chaffetz resides.
Overflowing Frustration in Utah
The Utah audience came equipped with homemade signs with “Agree” written on one side, and “Disagree” on the other, to issue respectful commentary with planned decorum. All that was certainly evident but the frustration overflowed and jeers and yelling erupted often. Chaffetz’ response was, “Well, hold on…” a plea he issued more times than could be counted.
A Muslim activist, Noor ul Hasan, had been in the Congressman’s face beginning the day before when he addressed the Utah legislature and also when he held a press conference to describe his work in Washington. Hasan was front and center, assailing White House Executive Orders which created travel restrictions for those of her faith.
When Congressman Chaffetz’ attempted to respond, the damage to accepted understanding of religious freedoms had already been done and emotional outbursts became the order of the evening’s event.
As the chairman of the House Oversight Committee dealing with ethics and impropriety on Capitol Hill in Washington, Chaffetz’ critics often charge that he uses his position for Republican Party paybacks, when other government officials of his own party could use the same treatment he’s often dished out to Democrats (notably to Hillary Clinton during her recent presidential bid). Even within the high school auditorium, the crowd erupted into chants of “Do your job!” when it came to their concern about President Donald Trump’s taxes. Chaffetz tried to explain that there was no legal obligation for the President to disclose his income tax returns, to which several in the crowd responded, “Make it a law!”
A General Response Across the Nation
Utah’s wasn’t the only heat being directed toward politicians as several town hall meetings elicited the same response from a public grown weary of what many perceive as Washington’s unwillingness to serve their needs and a President issuing orders they don’t understand. Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee reported that constituents in Tom McClintock’s (Republican – California-04) Northern California district became so riled that he was escorted from the planned venue for his personal safety. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a similar boil was directed to officials over topics including the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and Medicare. Additionally, energy policy and White House conflicts of interest became touchpoints in the national discussion. The tension was assessed in some districts to the point where town hall meetings weren’t considered, fearing more of what occurred in Utah and Tennessee.
Leaving Brighton High School
Reports that Chaffetz had cut the evening short were only somewhat exaggerated when the congressman left at near 9 PM. Outside, the crowd which had been waiting to see him for nearly two hours chanted, “This is what Democracy looks like!” Leaving under what would have been a nearly full moon, the traffic disbursed under a veil of cloud cover almost as opaque as the political responses in a troubled America.