Hundreds of Eastern shore voters lined up more than an hour in advance of a boisterous town hall meeting called by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District) on March 31 at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills in Talbot County. Residents from Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Howard Counties joined them.
Even before Harris, a physician and member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, came on stage, the overwhelming majority of attendees expressed their displeasure with his positions on health care reform, immigration, environmental regulation and women’s rights.
Outside the auditorium, yellow Harris campaign signs were covered with posters portraying an ear and the words, “Hear us Andy.” A mock tombstone said, “Here Lie the Institutions of Democracy Killed by the Trump Administration and Andy Harris who stood by Silently while it Happened.” Inside, a banner carried around the auditorium promoting single-payer healthcare drew loud cheering and chants of “This is What Democracy Looks Like.”
With the town hall scheduled for one hour, Harris was greeted with yelling and boos as he took time to review 10 slides covering the federal deficit and other issues before opening the floor to questions submitted in advance by constituents.
Attendees held up signs displaying their zip codes and flashed red cards en masse to express dissatisfaction on a range of Harris’s positions. They included his refusal to support the formation of an independent commission to investigate Russia’s interference in the presidential election, his support for excluding some industrial chemicals from government regulation, for cutting nutrition standards for school lunches and defunding Planned Parenthood. While Harris said he believes there is human-caused climate change, he met red again when he cast doubt on some of the research showing rising temperatures and sea levels.
“Fix it, Don’t Repeal It,” reverberated in response to Harris’s call to end the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion by returning all Medicaid funding to the states.
Harris, who voted against the American Healthcare Act, supported by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and President Trump, said no taxpayer dollars should go toward funding abortion and attacked Planned Parenthood as not being “real healthcare” like community health centers provide. The statement was widely booed.
Some attendees supported Harris and expressed displeasure at the audience’s conduct. Cecil County resident Benjamin Loth, who said, prior to the event he wanted to see how attendees “respected the first amendment rights of others,” walked out of the town hall. “Health care is a privilege. Single-payer healthcare is socialism, ” said Loth, a retired technician and service manager. Loth, who said no one should get government funds without working or being trained for a job, said, “My Medicare is great.”
Large numbers of green cards and applause greeted Harris only at a few points, like his pledge to support $73 million in federal funds to Chesapeake Bay cleanup, an expenditure missing from the administration’s budget priorities. Harris’s call to end partisan redistricting, of which he claimed to be a “beneficiary” and his support for increased attention to opioid addiction—blaming his profession for part of the problem—was also applauded.
The chant, “No Wall No Fear, Immigrants are Welcomed Here” rang out after Harris was asked if he would support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to build the wall on the Mexican border, a Trump campaign promise.
Many attendees said they were frustrated with Harris’s history of sparse face-to-face contact with constituents. Town halls, they said, are too infrequent and far away. “I’m infuriated that Andy Harris is so inaccessible,” said Brad Rosen, a TV and film producer who traveled from Harford County. “No one at Harris’s office answers my e-mails,” said 50-year Caroline County resident Nick Carter, who says he works to keep the Choptank River clean and vibrant.
Talbot Rising, a group formed before the presidential election, encouraged members to attend the event, circulating literature outside. In a video produced prior to the town hall, Michael Pullen, one of the group’s founders, said his members want Harris and other politicians to understand the free market does not solve all problems and good government is essential to protect the environment, public health and other needs.
“I think we can elect a new congressman [to replace Harris],” said Talbot Rising supporter Troy Wholey, a property manager and lifelong Eastern Shore resident who said he votes in every election, but is new to grassroots activism. Wholey who supports universal health care, limiting military spending and strengthening public education, said he is concerned about the Trump administration undermining progress on Chesapeake Bay cleanup. “I used to wade into the water to crab and I could see crabs four feet deep,” says Wholey. “In the 70s, the grasses disappeared. But [due to clean up efforts] they are now coming back and I’m seeing ospreys and eagles coming back, too.”
Asked about concerns over the Trump administration’s position on climate change, Mark McIver, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Wicomico County, said, “I don’t know that a whole lot of our members agree with the whole notion that the seas are rising. I talked to an old waterman who says the sea level has been the same for 50 years.” He said his members’ main concern is about healthcare and the economy. “Climate change isn’t a mainstream concern,” said McIver.
Many attendees said they were part of online groups formed after the election of President Donald Trump and the Jan. 21 Women’s March on D.C.
Debby Krueger began the Facebook group Together We Will Delmarva after the presidential election. The group hosted four Eastern Shore town hall meetings on health care reform in February drawing 200 residents to each. Krueger’s group joined with activists from the Democratic Club of Queen Anne’s County, the Talbot County Democratic Women’s Club, Talbot Rising, and another social media-based group, Kent and Queen Anne’s County Indivisible, to build turnout for the town hall.
“We call Andy Harris ‘Dr.No.’ said Joyce Scharch, representing the Democratic Women’s Club of Talbot County. “I’m so glad to work with all the new groups formed since the Women’s March on Washington,” she said.
Jared Schablein and Michael Feldman represented the newly formed Wicomico County Progressive Caucus. Fifty-six percent of the county’s voters are registered Democrats, says Feldman, but the county’s seven-member council only includes one Democrat. The group will focus on running candidates for board of education and positions, he says. Billy Earl Amos, president of the Democratic Club of Wicomico County says normal attendance at monthly meetings was once 10 to 12. Two months ago, he says, 84 people attended, energized in opposition to the Trump agenda.
Around fifty constituents couldn’t make it inside the auditorium due to fire code regulations. They included Matthew Manning, a Havre de Grace resident and recent graduate of St. Mary’s College, who says he came on a bus from Harford County to urge Harris to protect the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid extension which has covered his medications for asthma and expensive neck surgery. A political science major, Manning says, the president’s cabinet is full of oligarchs who operate like dictators. “This isn’t the America that I know and I want to do everything I can to change things.”
After the town hall, a group leaving the auditorium chanted, “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Andy Harris has got to go.” The group included former Montgomery County Del. and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, who owns an organic farm in Chestertown. Mizeur was an early leader in the successful fight to ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Maryland. Several attendees said they were inspired by the ban that has been supported by Gov. Larry Hogan.
Manisha Camper joined the group calling for Harris to go. “I’m here for my future,” said Camper, who was forced to leave school at Howard Community College to care for her mother who has recently become blind. “Our leaders need to stop trying to hang onto old ways. We need to harness creativity from both sides,” she said.
Four supporters waved a “Trump” sign across from those calling for Harris’s ouster, Goldie Green, a Baltimore County resident, said, “I don’t want single-payer healthcare. I don’t want what the Veterans Administration [provides]. In Canada, when you’re 65, you have to go to a ‘death panel’ before you can get a knee or hip replacement. Green praised Trump for increasing manufacturing and said blasted former president Barack Obama, saying she heard on Rush Limbaugh’s show that he is in Tahiti to “avoid being subpoenaed” for involvement in a drug deal.
Walking by both groups, Tom Jackson a third-generation grain farmer fro Queen Anne’s County said, “I wish Democrats and Republicans would sit down together and put together a healthcare system that is cost-effective and works.” Some seniors, says Jackson, are working two or three jobs, but still must skip meals to buy medicine, “while there are young people getting healthcare who don’t work at all.”