Congressional recess is typically a time for legislators to meet with constituents in peaceful settings for feedback on a number of issues facing the country and state. But if lawmakers were hoping for that tradition to continue, 2017 has been a year of struggle.
Perhaps emboldened by the outrage many on the left felt at the election of President Donald Trump, the town halls have provided a much more unruly atmosphere compared to past years.
Into that fray steps James Lankford. The Dallas-born Oklahoma senator is holding a number of “community conversations” this month, the latest of which took place in Broken Arrow on Tuesday.
Lankford met with his constituents Tuesday in six “small group” settings that ranged from 30 to 60 people.
Compared with similar town halls held by Oklahoma Representatives Markwayne Mullin and Jim Bridenstine that were met with rowdy crowds and controversy, Lankford’s Broken Arrow meetings were restrained affairs.
He cautioned attendees not to talk over one another. If their question was drawn, but they didn’t like to speak out loud in front of people, he would read the question for them.
Lankford was met with a series of direct, sometimes very critical questions, but the tone Tuesday stayed mostly calm. One woman, who spoke to the senator about childhood trauma caused by sexual abuse, thanked Lankford for always responding to her questions via phone call or email, “despite the fact that we always disagree.”
“I try to respect everybody,” Lankford said during a short break between sessions on Tuesday. “Not everybody in Oklahoma agrees. That’s OK.”
Lankford said that he felt the small group sessions he’s used have “been effective.”
We're live in Broken Arrow at Sen. James Lankford's town hall. https://t.co/CUKiJZb5TK
— The Frontier (@readfrontier) April 18, 2017
When the community events were announced, attendees had to sign up on a website. Though he has been criticized by some for not holding an event that was open for all — when each session was full, signups were closed — he said large events tend to devolve into fighting and telling.
“Most people just want to be heard,” he said. “When you’re in a large group, the way to be heard is to yell. When you’re in a small group, the way to be heard is to ask your question and have a discussion. I think that’s better.”
He said he’s aware of the potential for an attendee to hope to goad him into a moment like Mullin recently faced, when he told a constituent that it was “bullcrap” that taxes paid his congressional salary.
“There are some folks that come because they want to be Facebook famous,” Lankford said. “You can usually tell because they’re livestreaming or their friend is behind me trying to record me and create that moment. The key is just not to let someone goad me.”
He said town halls such as these have always been fiery affairs.
“Five years ago I had conservatives yelling at me to impeach Obama, now it’s, ‘Impeach Trump,’” he said. “Five years ago it was, ‘Get Obama’s birth certificate,’ Now it’s ‘Get Trump’s taxes.’ It was, ‘We don’t want to pay for security for Obama to golf all the time.’ Now it’s liberals saying the same about Trump.”
‘Come back to me and we’ll see if I was right’
Given the nature of the event, where Lankford would pull submitted questions from a bucket, the topics in each group tended to range all over the political spectrum. But over time themes emerged — healthcare, immigration, the wall and newly-minted Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
On healthcare, Lankford promised that despite some statements otherwise, Congress had not abandoned hope of “fixing healthcare” this year. He told the crowd he expected the House of Representatives to agree on some form of Affordable Care Act replacement in the next three weeks and predicted that Trump would sign a Senate-amended version by the end of June.
“Come back to me then and we’ll see if I was right,” Lankford told the crowd.
On immigration, the Senator said he favored there being a “path” to legally remaining in the country for illegal immigrants, but he “did not believe in” the idea of becoming a citizen “through an illegal act.”
He also was critical of the malaise in Congress on dealing with “comprehensive immigration reform.”
“I can tell you the deadline on the budget,” he said. “When is the deadline on immigration? There’s not one. Congress seems to only move on a deadline. … They only want to do the hard things later, and it always seems to be later on immigration.”
As for the wall, Lankford laughed at Trump’s notion of building a giant concrete wall that spanned the border between Texas and Mexico.
“What Trump is saying about a 2,000-mile wall, no one else is saying that, including his own secretary of Homeland Security (Gen. John Kelly,)” he said.
His answer to “the wall” was a mixture of an imposing concrete structure, as well as objects to restrict vehicular travel and, interestingly, a series of drones that could fly unrestricted 1,000 feet in the air. While the drones wouldn’t directly impede travel, they would allow operators to at least see who was coming and going, Lankford said.
As for DeVos, his answer brought on the first strong pushback from the crowd on Tuesday. A woman told Lankford she tried multiple times to call his office to voice her concern with DeVos’ nomination. She never reached him, she said, because his voice mailboxes were full or his phone lines were busy.
“What did that say to you when your phones were busy,” she asked. “And did that affect your decision?”
As for the busy phone lines, Lankford said sometimes “an outside group or media person will say call your congressman, and we get a flood of calls.”
“Betsy DeVos was a tough one,” he said. “A lot of teachers said, ‘She’s not from public education, her kids didn’t go to public education’ … Is she passionate about public education? Yes she is.”
That remark brought out the first red-colored card of the night, via Nancy Remus, who said she was a retired educator with 25 years of experience.
“My concern is that she’ll force vouchers on us, and charter schools,” Remus said. “She does not know what she’s talking about, that offends me that someone like her makes decisions.”
Lankford had told the crowd that if DeVos favored vouchers, not to fret, because she couldn’t “force them on Oklahoma.”
“It’s up for the state to make that decision,” he said.
Remus said she had previously talked to Lankford about that.
“He told me before when I told him not to confirm her that ‘Well, the President gets to appoint who he wants,’” she said. She then referenced Lankford’s statements about disagreeing with Trump’s desire to build a giant wall. “But apparently he doesn’t get to build the wall.”
Pointing at Lankford, Remus said DeVos’ nomination “was a betrayal of Oklahomans.”
In the first group-meeting of the night, Lankford said the two best questions he received came from children.
Jared Ewing, 10, and Anna Shirley, 12, students at Collegiate Hall, a Tulsa charter school, asked the senator pointed questions. Ewing asked Lankford what he would do to “stop police brutality, and avoid another Terence Crutcher moment,” and Shirley asked “how can we extract oil without damaging the environment.”
As for the police brutality question, Lankford — who noted his father is a small-town police officer — said that communities need to “work out their differences” before an event like the Crutcher shooting happens.
“If police officers do fall out of line, just like there are citizens who don’t do the right thing, those officers need to be held to account,” Lankford said.
He told Shirley that “the problem is wastewater injection,” and that you need to have “high regulations” on injection wells because smaller companies “will look for shortcuts.”
“We’ve got a lot to learn about wastewater injection,” he said.
Collegiate Hall principal Nikhil Kawlra said 30 students submitted questions, and they brought the seven students “who we thought asked the best ones.”
The struggle is real
It has been anything but smooth sailing for legislators meeting with their constituents this year. Earlier this month, Congressman Markwayne Mullin found himself in hot water after butting heads with attendees at a town hall in Jay.
Mullin, who has previously blamed some of the more outspoken pushback he’s received on local organized groups like Indivisible Oklahoma, was recorded in an argument at a town hall over his salary.
“You say you pay for me to do this? That’s bull crap. I pay for myself,” Mullin said, referencing taxes he’s paid through his plumbing company, Mullin Plumbing. “I paid enough taxes before I got here and continue to through my company to pay my own salary. This is a service. No one here pays me to go.”
That video quickly went viral, spreading even to other nations who have kept a close eye on American politics in the wake of Trump’s election.
Mullin has been criticized for his efforts to restrict town hall attendees from bringing in colored pieces of paper to use for silent demonstrations. At one town hall Mullin had security remove a woman who was holding up a red square of paper as a way of voicing her displeasure.
Mullin later had a last-minute closure of a town hall in Tahlequah because of “security concerns” that were at least in part due to those colored papers.
The Tulsa-born 2nd District Republican later said that his security concern was elevated after he saw a woman post a picture of his home to social media with a caption about getting arrested. But some upset constituents believe the colored paper and the Cherokee Nation’s Attorney General’s decision not to ban signs from the event played a large role in the postponement.
That particular town hall was scheduled for Sequoyah High School, which sits just east of Tahlequah and is under the jurisdiction of the Indian Nation. Prior to the town hall, people who planned to go and voice their displeasure with Mullin had asked Cherokee Nation AG Todd Hembree about the paper, as well as signs, as Mullin had attempted to ban both from the event.
Hembree, they said, told them the paper would be allowed in the town hall and anyone holding signs would be relegated to a nearby room, but not banned from the event.
Mullin, in a statement, said the event would be rescheduled after a “new venue and date” could be secured.
First District Congressman Jim Bridenstine fared moderately better during his town hall last week at Oral Roberts University’s Mabee Center. Facing a few hundred supporters and opponents, Bridenstine battled with constituents over Obamacare and Planned Parenthood.
Like Mullin, he also faced the red pieces of paper.