“See that row with the cameras? You can find seats there.” I nodded and thanked the gentleman who escorted us into Congressman Rouzer’s Town Hall meeting, held at Odell Williamson Auditorium in Brunswick County. We settled in. John Wolfe, my dear friend and cowriter for encore, pulled out a notebook and began scribbling notes furiously. The third member of our trio, Allison Ballard, another local writer and encore and Devour contributor, snapped pictures. I looked around in astonishment.
When we first walked up to the building, people met us and headed the other way.
“They’re turning people back—it’s full,” one woman informed us.
“Well, let’s go take a look,” John and Allison mumbled to me.
At the steps of the auditorium, a crowd pressed against the glass doors. An aging usher was left to defend the statement that the auditorium was full (it seats 1,500).
“No one else will be admitted,” he said.
“But I RSVP’ed!” several people proclaimed. They referenced the email that Congressman Rouzer’s office sent, asking people to reserve their space for the event.
“They’re already throwing people out!” a young man and woman stormed out the glass doors and loudly declared they were thrown out for speaking up.
While part of the crowd engaged with them, another part pressed back against the doors. People pointed out if two attendees left, it meant there should be two seats available.
“Why not let two more people in?”
Every time someone stuck his or her head out the door to engage with the crowd, we would hear thunderous cheers from inside. Our curiosity piqued. Was the applause in favor or opposed of something? What is going on in there?
“Gwenyfar, come on,” John motioned as we entered.
Dressed in a nice blazer and armed with a smile, he flashed our press credentials and got us seated in the media aisle. The electricity in the room crackled. Looking around, I noted with surprise, though there were a few beefy security and law-enforcement personnel, it wasn’t overwhelming.
Congressman Rouzer was onstage with a gentleman pulling lottery numbers to determine who would be allowed to ask questions. Behind the two men was a screen with a PowerPoint presentation. Men in suits held microphones on each side of the house, and in the balcony, when someone’s number was called, they would walk to the nearest microphone to ask their question.
Behind us in the balcony, a real-life Cindy Lou Who walked up to the man with the mic and explained in a sweet, angelic voice, filled with concern, “There are a lot of kids in my class who are afraid their parents will get deported. Why do you support this?”
The room erupted in applause. People jumped to their feet to give her a standing ovation.
Jaws across the auditorium were agape. Out of the mouths of babes—so simple, so straightforward, so direct.
Rouzer responded the president and his team were deporting criminals, murderers and rapists. He was cut off by an animal howl of boos, shouts of “liar” and “dump Trump!” A small amount of scattered applause came through, too, along with lots of shushing.
“Are you OK?” Allison asked. I nodded and waved back—the intensity of the room was so palpable, it was hard to breathe.
As we looked toward the stage, our congressman continued to smile and move toward each person asking a question before pacing during his response. Next, an older lady in red stood to ask about the president’s “inspiring speech to Congress.” She turned and surveyed the room with a surprised look of confusion on her face when the audience laughed. She was serious, but the audience thought she was joking.
No one in our group ever had been to a town hall meeting. County conventions, campaign stops and candidate speeches, rallies, yes—but nothing quite like this. Behind us, a woman bellowed at the crowd, “Stop screaming!” Her face red and contorted was filled with emotion and concentration.
Perhaps because Rouzer wouldn’t give the young lady in the balcony the courtesy of a direct answer instead of a talking point, several people tried asking the congressmen direct “yes or no” questions. One occupational therapist, who explained he worked with many geriatric patients, tried asking if the congressman would vote to privatize Medicare (yes) or leave it alone (no).
Rouzer avoided being pinned down by committing to any course of action. Instead, he responded Medicare, as it stands, would have to be adjusted for the long-term. The crowd began to chant,
“Yes or no? Yes or no?” Still, he did not answer directly.
“That’s some serious rhetorical judo,” John noted.
And so it went with all major issues of the day: Affordable Care Act; Donald Trump’s income-tax returns; Trump’s business interests and ties to Russia; education; Planned Parenthood; the EPA; the Muslim ban; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When asked about Donald Trump calling the press the enemy of the state, Congressman Rouzer responded, “The press is not fair and objective.”
And that felt like getting hit with a frying pan—especially after President George W. Bush’s interview last week on the Today Show. He called the media “indispensable for democracy.”
But the real moment that felt like a sonic shock wave moved through the room—the point at which we came the closest to breaking down all pretense of civilization—happened when a retired gentleman from the EPA, who worked during Reagan, Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama eras, for 36 years overall, pointed out how EPA Clean Power Plan would have located tens of thousands of jobs right here in NC. He asked Congressman Rouzer why he did not support the plan and instead supported saving a few jobs in West Virginia. “The jobs in West Virginia are important,” Rouzer said. But he went one step further. He said he didn’t just represent North Carolina—but everyone in the country. The crowd jeered, “You work for us! Do your job!” The rage was so volatile, it felt like the roof was going to fly off the building. How exactly does representation work if our congressman does not actually represent us but rather everyone in the nation?
The afternoon surged on at a level of adrenaline that is hard to maintain. The extreme highs and lows of the audience’s responses were terrifying. Rouzer shrugged off the demands and accusations of the crowd the way KY Jelly slides off a Teflon muffin tin. Unfazed by audience response—or the attempt to insert either facts or statistics into the conversation—he pressed onward. The only moment he seemed to waver was when Deborah Dicks Maxwell of the NAACP schooled him on the importance of words: “The Affordable Care Act has a name—use it,” she urged. “Furthermore, given the roll back of the EPA, how can communities like Navassa with superfund sites expect to get help?” She pressed the issue and called specific attention to the disparity that communities of color face.
The congressman physically retreated from her across the stage. Without addressing her concerns, he managed to say, “Thank you for your comments,” and desperately searched for the next question from the audience. Visually, the exchange was striking and clear; it was like we were watching a movie instead of democracy in action.
At a few minutes before 4 p.m., the cut-off time, a young meteorology student from N.C. State asked the congressman directly for his views on climate change, and how he planned to defend his district, with its many low-lying coastal areas susceptible to the looming effects of sea-level rise?
“Are we done?” Rep. Rouzer asked somewhat rhetorically.
People were walking out and shaking their heads in disgust as he performed the litany: “The earth has been warming and cooling since the beginning of time. What is it that’s causing it? Some scientists say it’s caused by human activity, and some say it’s not. Public policy should be based on real, concrete science, not the opinion of this group of scientists or that group of scientists. The scientific community is split.”
And then it was over. People trickled out the doors in the back—the flood of emotion retreating back to the simmering sea of everyday life. We, shuddering and exhausted, stood up to leave, too. At the doorway, Allison pointed downstage to the cluster of people gathered around something. “That’s where the Trump voters are.” There stood the congressman, too, open and available—surrounded by a small group of people and a few beefy no-necked security guys.
“That’s where the Trump voters are.” There stood the congressman, too, open and available—surrounded by a small group of people and a few beefy no-necked security guys.
“I’ll be right back,” John said and strode down the empty aisle to the orchestra pit—no intention except observation.
“Do you want to join him?” Allison offered.
“No, I want to talk to the people in the lobby.” I left them.
* * * * *
John stood at the fringe for a few minutes, observing. The congressman had taken off his tie. Up close, John noticed his suit, a dark royal blue, had a faint plaid pattern to it. It looked expensive. John’s own blazer, black and wrinkled, the only suit he owned, had gotten him this close to the man himself—beyond the quick up-down glimpses of a beefcake security guard and another staffer-looking guy. He carried an important leather shoulder bag across the fraternity uniform of blue blazer tan slacks. They both scoped out John and then leaned aside so John could inch closer. “I’m not a threat,” John realized.
“I’m not a threat,” John realized.
They believe I’m just another supporter, John thought. The camouflage worked marvelously.
(That’s the beautiful and dangerous thing about thoughts: Unless they are written down or voiced, they still can’t be read.)
John decided not to hammer Rep. Rouzer on environmental issues. It was not the time, and the congressman already spent two hours fending off better-worded questions than John’s shocked and exhausted brain could process. Instead, he lobbied two simple questions, formulated as he awaited and watched small groups take turns shaking hands, expressing support or telling the congressman what a good job he is doing—and how he could do it better.
Admittedly, Rouzer was marvelous on this platform: courteous, respectful, engaged, even if he disagreed—which he did with some people. One man took a selfie, and prompted John and the no-necked security guard, both in the background of the picture, to move their torsos slightly so their faces were out of frame. John looked at the guard and flashed his secret weapon: a disarming good-natured grin that opens so many doors. The guard bit and cracked a smile, too. They acknowledged the human moment they shared: “The good ol’ Selfie Sway.”
As Rouzer finished talking with the last two people, he thanked them graciously and said, “I’ve got to go meet the press now.” Suddenly, he was opposite John’s smile, with a face like oiled dough, eyes a little dark and hollow, and a tad further away than what seemed from afar. But his jet-black hair still was perfect.
“Hello, Mr. Rouzer. How do you feel?”
“Oh, uh, fine,” he said, a little off-balance for a millisecond as if wondering who the hell John was. Then habit took over, and he offered the standard political two-point-of-contact-handshake (soft grasp of hand and touch of upper arm, the touch of power light and brief).
“Why do you do this?” John asked.
The congressman hesitated for another micro-instant, so John added, “It seems like there was a lot of anger directed at you up there.”
This Rouzer latched onto. “Well, I don’t view it as anger. I think there was some good dialogue today.”
He turned and walked away, owing John nothing else. Then, as he exited to the bright door to the left of the stage where the rest of the press waited, he chuckled and looked back over his shoulder. He had thought of one more thing: “Nothing happened that I didn’t expect.”
And then he was gone.