Will Contentious Town Halls Reshape Gulf Coast?



The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall filled to the brim Saturday not with patrons but rather with constituents for a town hall meeting hosted by US Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. According to Buchanan’s office, a capacity crowd of roughly 1,750 filled the venue, while an overflow crowd of 800 listened outside through loudspeakers set up by the congressman. “We do things big in Sarasota,” Buchanan told the audience.  

This comes weeks after a US Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, held a similar packed event at the Englewood Event Center on March 6. And the events follow numerous raucous events held throughout the nation in the months since the election of Donald Trump. 

Questions at Buchanan’s event largely centered around the ongoing healthcare debate, while much of Rooney’s centered on Social Security and intelligence issues. Through Saturday's event, attendees regularly leveled criticism at the new administration, but also resented concerns both about the burdens of the Affordable Care Act and potential consequences of repeal. “I want to do what’s best for America, not what’s best for one party or the other,” Buchanan said. “You can’t represent someone if you don’t listen to them.” The Rooney event became confrontational at times, with audience members demanding protection for Medicare and Social Security and Rooney defensively saying there needed to be a budget study. “When someone says nothing is wrong with Social Security and Medicare, and they are totally sustainable forever and ever, they are lying to you,” Rooney told constituents. Rooney, who held his meeting after Trump made a high-profile accusation that former President Obama had tapped his phone at Trump Tower during the campaign, also heard both from constituents demanding an investigation of Obama and those dismissing the Trump accusation as made-up nonsense. Rooney, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, at the time promised to raise the issue with FBI leadership and look at things in a bipartisan manner.

But the lingering political question in the region remains whether the massive turnout and high emotion at town halls indicates a desire for change in political leadership. Frank Alcock, New College of Florida professor who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate last year as a Democrat, says frustration among Democrats is as great as he’s ever seen during 14 years on the Gulf Coast. “It may surpass what happened with the Tea Party in 2010,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who we have never seen before. The question is, can it be sustained or even built upon, and can this energy be organized effectively?” 

But Christian Ziegler, Republican state committeeman for Sarasota County, says the anger on the left comes from political impotence. “The fight for relevance is driving the turnout and emotion,” he says. “After losing over 1,000 state and federal seats to the Republican Party under Obama’s eight years and with the White House, US House and US Senate under Republican control, the Left's only move now is to attempt to obstruct by protest. Unfortunately for them, their behavior, including in Sarasota, further showcases their extremism.”

Of course, neither Buchanan nor Rooney seem to be in dangerous territory to seek re-election. Buchanan carried his district, Florida’s 16th, with 59.8 percent of the vote, and, for that matter, Trump won the district with 53.7 percent. Rooney won Florida’s 17th district with 61.8 percent of the vote, and Trump took the district with 62.2 percent. Both incumbents also were running for the first time in district boundaries redrawn following court rulings. Alcock concedes that as long the incumbents seek re-election in 2018, Democrats would have a tough time unseating them despite outcry on the left right now. But there is still no baseline to test how voters behave without a high-profile, high-stakes presidential election going on. “In a year with nothing special going on, (Buchanan’s district is maybe R+4, but a lot of things are going to all that in different directions,” Alcock says. Ziegler, though, suggests the polarizing behavior of left-wing protestors will force the party further from mainstream views in the district and make it more difficult for Democrats to win, including in Sarasota. Protests “move them more and more from the center," he says, "and will hurt them at the ballot box for years to come.”

Photo courtesy of the Office of Vern Buchanan: More than 1,700 constituents fill a Town Hall meeting at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

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