How One GOP Congressman Handles Voter Wrath at His Town Halls: By Embracing It
BLUFFTON, South Carolina—Rep. Mark Sanford is a rare sort. He’s the first politician I’ve ever met to insist that a reporter speak with constituents at his events who strongly disagree with him.
There were many of those to be found on Tuesday morning, as the conservative congressman and former governor held a series of public events in his low country coastal district that became cathartic anti-Republican therapy sessions. Oddly, Sanford seemed fine with it. He seemed to welcome it. But to what end?
At a “Coffee with Your Congressman” event at the Plantation Café and Deli on Hilton Head Island, constituents who showed up conveyed to Sanford one concern after another, typically from a liberal—or at least anti–this-Congress—perspective. Usually in these politely challenging environments, the member’s press people would try to distract reporters from visible dissent. Instead, after about five minutes of a conversation I would be having with one angry constituent, Sanford himself would seek me out and recommend that I talk to another person who mostly disagreed with him and everything he stands for.
“You should talk to Alexis—she’s with Indivisible,” Sanford said, referring to the anti-Trump pressure network that organizes town hall protests and other #Resistance activities. Indeed, Alexis King was a member and spokeswoman for the low country chapter of Indivisible who’s lived in Hilton Head for most of her life, is frightened by Donald Trump, and disagrees with her congressman about most things.
“I was pretty much telling him about the stuff I sit up and think about at 3 in the morning, that you wish you had a chance to say,” she said. “I just said it, so he can know how his constituents actually feel.” She said she understood that she may not be able to move him on health care or Planned Parenthood. She was hopeful, though, that she could convince him to speak out against immigration raids. “I’m just feeling him out,” she said. Like all of Sanford’s constituents I spoke with, she could at least respect the accessibility of her Freedom Caucus congressman. It gives you the luxury of spending a face-to-face session “feeling him out,” knowing that you’ll get another opportunity later.
After my chat with King, Sanford came back and told me I should speak to “Linda over here,” who’s lived in Hilton Head since 2013. Linda Schilder, who’s somewhere between a Democrat and independent, said that she had told Sanford she wants to see more bipartisan collaboration in Congress. She also brought up gun control and how she wants more restrictions on handguns and semi-automatic weapons (even as a supporter of hunting and recreational shooting).
She said Sanford responded that “a shotgun is a semi-automatic weapon.” It is hard to move him on his Second Amendment convictions, and she was disappointed.
Sanford later insisted I speak with Cheri Gould, a Hilton Head resident who brought her daughter and had, in Sanford’s words, “a lot to say about health care.” Again: When a Republican congressman is urging you to talk to someone in this manner, you suspect that he’s directing you to, say, an Americans for Prosperity or Heritage Foundation official dressed in an everyday American costume.
This was not who Cheri Gould was. She had been to “many” of Sanford’s town halls and relayed to me what she had just said to him. “Health care coverage should be for everybody,” she said. Gould noted that both she and her daughter have pre-existing conditions. Though they’re covered by her husband’s employer insurance now, Gould is certain that deregulated, private individual insurance can’t do the job—because it didn’t work before the Affordable Care Act. She had just passed along these concerns to her congressman.
“[Sanford] has had at least a half-dozen or more of these town halls that are heavily weighted to health care, and the feedback and the polling says people want what essentially looks like universal coverage,” she said. “Yet he and the Republicans are working to take that away. And I don’t understand that disparity.”
Sanford, she said, told her that health coverage needs to be “sustainable,” as well as “bogus” stories about how, with a European- or Canadian- style health care system, some procedures wouldn’t be covered and there would be long wait times for specialists. She pointed out that we already have these exact problems with the American-style health care system. “It’s a false argument.”
By this point, Sanford had just left the café for a town hall in Sun City, a retirement community about 20 miles or so inland. A typical congressman’s staff might have given me false directions to the event that stranded me somewhere in a low country marsh. (Scratch that—a typical congressman wouldn’t have an in-person town hall to begin with.)
Sanford had told me to be sure to leave myself 30 minutes to get there.
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The first question that Sanford got at his Sun City town hall went as follows: “How do I explain to my children and grandchildren that we have an adulterer, cheat, and liar as our president and congressman?”
When the gentleman repeated his question much more loudly and someone from across the room screamed at him to sit down and be quiet, the gentleman flipped a middle finger across the room. Security came to escort the man out of the town hall, but Sanford came over and told everyone to cool down. No one really cooled down, though, during the roughly 90-minute event that Sanford would describe afterward as “invigorating.”
There are a lot of retirees in the Hilton Head area. And a lot of those retirees, judging by nearly every loud accent I heard at the town hall—conducted in an outdoor pavilion, surrounded by tennis courts and various lawn games—were from New York and New Jersey. Early on, as things were getting rowdy, Sanford joked that “this isn’t a New Jersey town hall, this is a South Carolina town hall”—as in, “let’s be respectful to each other.” Some variation of the shout “DON’T PUT DOWN NEW JERSEY” could be heard throughout the rest of the event.
The rowdiness manifested itself in other ways. Sanford, for example, was asked to repudiate either Jesus Christ or atheist free-market objectivist author Ayn Rand since it was “contradictory” to idolize both. (Sanford acknowledged that Rand could go astray but still recommended reading Atlas Shrugged.)
Most of the questions, though, were about health care and started from the tenet that Sanford’s beliefs on the subject were wrong. He had one get-out-of-jail card available to him that he pulled multiple times: that he was one of three Republicans to have voted against the American Health Care Act. (He did not point out that he voted against the AHCA in the Budget Committee because it wasn’t conservative enough or that he waited to vote last, once the bill’s approval was assured.) It’s an excuse that more endangered members, especially those who did vote for it in committee as loyal team players, wish they could have.
“Should everyone in this country have health care?” someone asked Sanford near the end.
“I think it’s an individual choice,” he said. Perhaps the only louder boos than the ones that followed came when he suggested that those frozen out from insurance should look to their communities, charities, and churches for assistance.
When someone asked him when he thought “we will heave health care for all people in this country”—a question that earned a standing ovation—Sanford replied that “the answer is that I don’t have the answer.”
What he said next was odd to hear from the free-market true believer, who’d endured hours of verbal abuse defending his ideology that morning: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with a bifurcated plan, something closer to what they have in Great Britain, where you have your base level of benefits and if you want bells and whistles, you can come back and buy more.” That sounds like the reluctant acknowledgement of a conservative who’s seen what happens politically when free marketers even attempt to put their hands on health care.
Why does Mark Sanford put himself through this, when so many of his colleagues are running for the hills? Most congressional Republicans have either retreated to carefully choreographed “tele-town halls” or stopped giving town halls altogether. It may be that Sanford won his last election by 22 points in his conservative district and views the angriest of his constituents—those who might join Indivisible and head to a town hall—as a rounding error. Or maybe he just feeds on the abuse. He’s seen worse in his career but nevertheless stayed in politics for more.
“I always did these open-door office hours in front of, like, a Walmart,” he said after the town hall. He was eating a cheeseburger at his next event, a constituent roundtable at Five Guys, with more constituents who had more opinions about how he was wrong on health care and taxes.
“It helped you,” he said of these Walmart events. “Not any one conversation, but by the time you’d have 50, you’d pick up certain currents, where people are coming from.” By that 50-person standard, he certainly picked up a current on Tuesday. Will it make a difference when he returns to Washington? Or is it abuse for abuse’s sake?