This morning about 50 people showed up for a town hall meeting in Austin with Republican Rep. Lamar Smith. This was the first public meeting Congressman Smith held in Austin since the north and west sides of the city were re-redistricted into TX-21 in 2003.
Before the event began, my husband overheard some people telling Rep. Smith that they had received phone calls from the local Republican party, asking them to come support him. Knowing this, we both expected the crowd to be fairly evenly split between support for Rep. Smith and opposition to him.
Congressman Smith said town meetings are an important way to hear from his constituents, and that only 1/5 of his colleagues in Congress hold town meetings. After the drubbing he took during this one, I suspect he wishes he had remained in the 4/5 majority.
The Response to Hurricane Katrina
Smith started out on a faulty note, mis-speaking when he noted that the aftermath of Hurricane "Kratina" will affect our nation for years to come. Sticking to this week's talking points, he mentioned the "bi-partisan, bi-cameral" committee that will investigate failures at all levels, promising that "Partisanship will be left at the door" and "I'm sure there will be ample time to investigate."
In the wake of the hurricane, he said almost everything else on the legislative agenda has had to be shelved. He discussed how the judicial committee has had to address legislation to permit federal courts based in New Orleans to hear cases outside their juristiction, and noted that many other committees are having to address similar issues never before considered.
Asked how Hurricane Katrina will affect the Congress' legislative priorities, and whether this should require a shift away from tax cuts, Smith said, "Yes, mostly." He said he believes that tax cuts do (or can) spike the economy, but remarked, "Realistically, the estate tax will not be repealed this year."
At this point, a man with silver hair stood up. "Representative Smith," he said firmly, "I have been a Republican since the early 1960's." Oh, no, I thought, here it comes - shill time. This guy had to be part of the crowd called in by the Travis County Republican Party this morning to give Smith some cover.
"I pay a lot for taxes," he continued, "and I consider it a social investment. I am outraged! When this catastrophe hit, the president's response was that we should 'give to private charity.' I am outraged that this party can't support our country. We can't deal with our own self-defense. You need to fire Chertoff and these FEMA clowns. What are you doing with our tax dollars?!"
At this point, the audience broke into applause. Smith, sticking to message, said it will be investigated: "We don't care who's responsible, we just want to find out who's responsible."
This is an important point for the Democratic party to pursue - that taxpayers did not get their money's worth with this Republican administration. This may attract outraged voters like this man.
Iraq and Support for the Troops
A young woman stood up and introduced herself as a small business owner and from a family of veterans. "The Republican party claims to support our troops," she said, "but a bill providing medical care for veterans missed by one vote, and you voted 'No' on that bill. How do you defend your vote?"
Smith said that veterans received an 8% increase this past year, and "any more would have broken the budget and the general agreement." This excuse was received with hisses.
She followed up asking about a bill to increase health insurance rates for Guard and Reserve troops to the same level as Tricare which regular troops receive, which missed by 7 votes and for which Smith voted 'No.' She said service people are losing their businesses because they have been called up for so long.
Smith said, "We have to do more and do better, but at some point we have to say that 8% is enough."
But to applause, this young woman said, "I don't think you've done as much for our servicemen as you've done for the top 1% in our country."
Asked about his support for the Iraq war, Smith spouted party platitudes about "seeds of democracy growing and freedom will justify the effort." Alas, no one followed up to ask him whether Islamic law was the type of freedom he envisioned.
Tom DeLay, Redistricting and the Ethics Committee
During his opening remarks, Smith pointed out that he's on the House Ethics Committee, "but I can't say anything about that because of confidentiality." Asked what he would do now that TRMPAC has been indicted (though DeLay was not), Smith said he has recused himself from any investigations into DeLay because "Tom is a friend of mine."
"Are you still going to give money to him, Lamar?" shouted someone. Smith did not respond.
Another questioner stood up later and thanked Smith for coming out to meet with his constiuents. Playing off Smith's opening assertion that only 20% of his colleagues hold town meetings, the man said, "The reason they don't go meet their constituents is because they don't have competitive districts due to gerrymandering. When will congress pass laws requiring independently-drawn districts?"
Smith said, "That's up to the states to do."
"Then why was Tom DeLay involved here in Texas?" shouted someone.
"He wasn't, the state legislature - "
"Oh, c'mon, Lamar!"
"The legislature - "
"Everyone knows DeLay was running it!"
The shouting and hisses continued for a few moments. Smith pretended not to understand what redistricting people were talking about (he "thought" they meant Texas house districts, not Congressional). He complained that he had been a victim of redistricting in the Texas House back in 1981. And he denied that Tom DeLay had any hand in the matter at all. "Redistricting is up to the states," he said.
"It was wrong split Austin into three districts," said the original questioner.
Misc: Pork Barrel Spending, CAFTA, Health Care and Terry Schiavo
Asked how the $24 billion in earmark projects (a.k.a. pork) from the transportation bill was consistent with smaller government, Smith said, "I won't defend pork barrel projects or the Alaskan Bridge to nowhere." Making a point of singling out Robert Byrd (D-WV) as a big pork recipient, Smith said, "In the end, the vote is yes or no and I voted 'Yes'" Then, using every third-grader's favorite defense, he added, "But everybody does it!"
Later he was asked why he voted for CAFTA. He said he voted for it because it opens markets. "But why," the questioner followed up, "did leadership break House rules by holding open the vote for an hour to twist arms instead of just 15 minutes, and why were pork projects given in exchange for votes?" The audience applauded. Smith's answer: "This is the way it's always done."
Asked about health insurance for those who cannot afford it, Smith suggested that Congress might let them buy into their plan - which he noted "costs $500 to $1500 per month." What about people who cannot afford that much? "Those will be public assistance."
And when asking about his votes against stem cell research and for extending Terry Schiavo's life, the questioner remarked, "If you spent so much effort on living people as on these issues, New Orleans would never have happened."
By the last ten minutes, Smith was looking at the clock pretty regularly.
A very well-dressed woman in the front of the audience stood up. "Congressman Smith," she said, "our country needs to ask for sacrifice from those who can afford it." She made an impassioned plea for him to bring back the public spirited-ness that typifies public service. "We need you to do this," she concluded.
The last question came from a lady in the back seated with a group of Boy Scouts. "Hurricane Katrina unveiled a lack in our government," she said. "FEMA has become the landing ground for political appointees. This has shaken my faith in our ability to take care of ourselves."
Those words - "This has shaken my faith in our ability to take care of ourselves" - show us another way to address those Republican voters who sought strong leadership. In a crisis, the "father figure" Republicans have shown they can't take care of their own. The Democrats have an opportunity now - if we can show that we will, and do, take care of everyone.
Overall, I was very impressed by how well-prepared and well-spoken the people in attendance were. They had done their research, they asked pointed and pertinent questions, and they followed up when their questions were not answered. I had come with several questions, but all were asked during the course of the meeting. It is heartening to know that there are so many articulate and intelligent people out there, taking an interest in our government and holding our representative's feet to the fire. Bravo to all of us - and take heart, because based on the anger and frustration expressed by the Republicans in the audience, the walls of the Republican fortress are beginning to crumble, bit by bit by bit.