by Emily Hill
As many of you have heard by now, the local grassroots organization IndivisibleYOLO requested that John Garamendi, our local representative in the House of Representatives, hold a town hall meeting to hear from his constituents. I was excited when he agreed late last week to hold the town hall, happy to see he had the guts to hold one in this new political environment, and looked forward to him responding to concerns brought forward.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. I had never met Rep. Garamendi before, and although I was disappointed he attended Trump’s inauguration, my general sense was that Garamendi was a good Democrat who would oppose Trump’s creeping fascism and racism. I went into the town hall interested and very much on Garamendi’s side.
I certainly didn’t expect to leave the town hall deeply frustrated with and disappointed in the congressman.
First, let me tell you what I saw at the townhall. The Veterans Memorial Theater was packed, standing room only, with more than 400 people squeezed inside. I heard that many more were turned away. Garamendi’s staff was there, taking photos and videos. Much of the local political crowd was there – Mayor Robb Davis, State Senator Dodd, State Rep Cecilia-Aguilar. Most importantly, there were several hundred constituents, many holding signs.
The town hall began well enough. Rep. Garamendi warmed up the crowd, pointing out that he and his wife had attended the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. He then opened it up to constituents, and for the next 90 minutes, Rep. Garamendi fielded a variety of questions from the audience. Many of his answers resonated with the audience: judging by the applause, we were all very much in favor of the public option for healthcare, and in favor of a national popular vote instead of the electoral college, and in favor of Roe v Wade and women’s rights in general. Rep. Garamendi is clearly on the right side for many of the important issues facing the nation. He also cares about people’s safety, interrupting the town hall to warn of evacuations from the serious Oroville Dam spillway erosion.
But on the most important topic of the moment, the topic that clearly is motivating so much passionate grassroots energy, Rep. Garamendi fell frustratingly short. Rep. Garamendi completely failed to pick up the vibe of a crowd that was desperate for leadership and strong public stances against Trump.
Over and over again, when asked what he personally was going to do to fight Trump, Rep. Garamendi essentially threw up his hands. “The Republicans control Congress,” he reminded the audience more than once. Everybody in the room knows that… but what we don’t know, is what is Rep. Garamendi going to do personally to impede the Republican agenda? Ann Block, a Davis resident, perhaps summarized it best: “He kept telling us what we already knew instead of telling us what he planned to do about it. I would have loved to hear about legislation he’s proposing, or amendments he is proposing to Republican bills, to slow them down.”
Joanna from Davis asked a great question about Democratic complacency. “Trump is doing absolutely the opposite of draining the swamp. Look at his cabinet nominees. Why are we hearing little to nothing about the hypocrisy in the drain-the-swamp promises?”
Rep. Garamendi again effectively threw his hands up in the air: “Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the room, and our heads are spinning. All of us are just overloaded.” He described Trump as a magician, expert at manipulating the press. Noticeably absent: any specifics about what he, Rep. Garamendi, was going to do to try to take back some of that media oxygen.
Here is another example of deflecting the question. Anoosh Jorjorian, local coordinator for Rainbow Families, asked, “Trump has been threatening California economically. Given that we are the sixth largest economy in the world, what can you and other CA representatives, do to turn around that economic pressure onto the Trump administration?” He replied that California will not secede (nobody suggested that), and then told her to go get involved. Anoosh is already heavily involved, but that isn’t the question… what is Rep. Garamendi going to do to leverage California’s economic power? Who knows?
Perhaps most surprising to many of the women (and men) in the audience, however, was that Rep. Garamendi repeatedly suggested that women holding the microphone (and only the women) treat it like it was their boyfriend and told them to “kiss it”. A questioner later pointed out that it was inappropriate, and to his credit Rep. Garamendi apologized. But it’s disheartening that a Democratic representative to Congress in 2017, from California, needs to be told, in short, not to be creepy. (To quote one of my friends after the town hall: “blech… I need to take a shower.”)
This behavior clearly rubbed many people the wrong way. Another local woman, Darcy Hannibal, stated, “He has a bad habit of trying to disarm the questioner with a joke or a ridiculous diversion. He needs to stop doing that. It is creepy and patronizing. By the winces, sighs, and head shaking all around me, it was pretty clear most people were put off by it.” Kayln Coppedge agrees. “I’ve never cared about a Town Hall before in my life. Today I streamed it from home. While I understand using humor to connect with one’s audience, it seems tone deaf to make so many jokes when people are paying attention, showing up and doing the work because we are scared. We need someone who is prepared to fight for us. While I felt Garamendi was agreeing with the majority of his constituents present he certainly didn’t seem to grasp the fear and concern of his voters.”
So, to summarize, here’s what we didn’t see at the town hall. We didn’t see a representative who made any concrete, specific commitments to do anything to stand up to Trump. We didn’t see a representative who could articulate any strategy to connect to the grassroots energy in front of him. We didn’t see a representative who would even choose a side on the upcoming DNC chair election (Ellison vs. Perez). We didn’t see a representative who offered anything beyond lukewarm, pro forma anti-Trump rhetoric. In short, we didn’t see a representative who understands that 2017 is different from 2016 – and that we need a fighter.
Democrats need to take back control of the narrative and go on the rhetorical offense. Garamendi needs to demand Trump’s tax returns, over and over again, ad nauseum, until they give in. Garamendi needs to demand to dig into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, over and over again ad nauseum, until the truth is revealed.
Says Kari Peterson, another Davis local: “I wanted to see more fire in Rep. Garamendi. Desperate times call for fierce, coordinated measures. We need leadership ready to fight for our values and be totally prepared to press congress and the administration. We are ready to fight, we’re already fighting, and we need our reps to do their job! I think the crowd tonight was frustrated and wanted to hear how the democrats are going to hold the new president and his cabinet accountable. People don’t want steady, cool, patient leaders who play the game the old way.” Similarly, Roberta Millstein wrote an excellent piece in the Vanguard about the town hall exhorting Rep. Garamendi to “be bolder” in the fight against Trump.
We hope that Rep. Garamendi hears this message, that our district needs a representative who will fight Trump tooth and nail, fight him in every forum, fight him in every town hall, fight him every single moment congress is in session.
What we don’t need is a representative adept at explaining away the complacency of the establishment. I want to give Rep. Garamendi the benefit of the doubt that he will catch up to and match his constituents’ passion, but I am incredulous and frustrated that he seems to be missing the mood of the country.
Despite my frustration with the Congressman, I was incredibly inspired by the crowd at the town hall: by the huge turn-out, the passion that came through in the questions, and by people’s deep concern for the future of our country. If Rep. Garamendi takes his cues from the energetic constituents who showed up last night, we will be similarly inspired by him.