Emily Quinn of Sterling speaks during the Indivisible Town Hall. She was among those that asked Rep. Barbara Comstock to investigate conflicts of interest in the Trump administration.
At an emotionally charged town hall, more than two dozen speakers from a 150-person audience shared their angers, fears and frustrations with their elected officials, predominantly president Donald Trump and Virginia’s 10th Congressional District Rep. Barbara Comstock (R). Some cried while discussing the state of the country. Others expressed some combination of all those emotions.
Organized by Indivisible VA 10, the group said the Feb. 24 event in Sterling was designed to give a forum for the district’s constituents to voice their perspectives with their representative in Congress. Comstock, as expected, didn’t attend, citing a long-standing prior engagement.
Groups like Indivisible have said Comstock is purposefully avoiding them, and failing to show up at the town hall Friday night is just the latest example. Comstock has defended herself against these criticisms, saying she is readily accessible to her constituents and points to her active engagement in a wide range of community events. Her staff has also pointed to recent teleconference town halls, saying they allowed for interactions with thousands, whereas Indivisible limited attendance at its event.
“The Congresswoman has a long standing prior commitment tonight, and has hosted two telephone town halls that reached approximately 9,000 constituents where she can engage in a civil and conversational manner,” said Comstock’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jeff Marschner in an email. “She has been doing telephone town halls since she was a Delegate in 2010. The 10th Congressional District is sprawling, and we have found constituents appreciate the opportunity to call in from home or wherever they are and listen in at their convenience.”
Local Indivisible groups are affiliated with the nationwide Indivisible movement, a coalition of citizen activists that have partnered with liberal groups like MoveOn.org and work to thwart the Trump administration. Attendees at the event in Sterling made no effort to hide their disdain for the president, and by extension, their representative in congress.
Mike Turner, who ran in the Democratic primaries for Comstock’s seat in 2008 then held by her mentor and predecessor Frank Wolf, received multiple standing ovations after calling Trump “the chief domestic enemy” of the constitution. He held a copy of the constitution while speaking, saying the president was in violation of Article I, Sec. 9 which prohibits elected officials from procuring emoluments, or gifts, from foreign nations.
“When the impeachment comes, and it’s coming… Rep. Comstock will you vote with your constituents and the people who pay your salary or not?” Turner said.
Comstock’s district covers much of Northern Virginia, stretching from western Fairfax County to the West Virginia boarder. While the majority of speakers Feb. 24 were from Loudoun, citizens from across the district came to voice their displeasure. Many of the attendees said the second-term congresswoman’s actions on Capitol Hill would be a detriment her constituents
Among those was Mathew Zellman of Centerville, who teared up when telling a story of his neighbors, a married couple who are in the country illegally. Zellman said they both came in to the country legally and are upstanding people, but they can’t procure legal status
“They’re about as American as anybody I’ve met in my life,” Zellman said. “Do you consider those people to be criminals, by victims of our immigration system being so broken?
At the event, a group of volunteer fact checkers presented a collection of her legislative record and public statements in an attempt to postulate how she would respond to questions like these. Without any representation from Comstock or anyone who spoke on her behalf, the forum presented an obvious logistical challenge for her to defender herself. In reviewing Comstock’s actions, fact checkers also offered their own criticisms in her decision making to the crowd.
The event planned to press Comstock on several specific hot button issues like positions on immigration reform and her support for replacing the Affordable Care Act. Healthcare in particular had been a major concern for member from Indivisible, and nearly 60 people came to her office in Sterling last month to ask her staff to defend Comstock’s position.
“The Congresswoman and staff are in constant communication with her constituents – patients, doctors, hospitals, health care providers and more -about the efforts to repeal and replace the ACA,” Marschner said. “She has met with hundreds of people to discuss these critical issues. (Feb. 24), Congresswoman Comstock met with approximately thirty constituents in her Washington, DC office to have an actual discussion without any shouting that we have seen over the past week.”
Groups like Indivisible have organized town halls with Republican members of Congress across the country. Conservative groups, including the Republican Party of Virginia, have criticized attendees at some of these events, some of which have received publicity for hostile exchanges toward lawmakers. Others, including Trump, have said many of those at the town hall are paid by Democratic organizations to be there.
Many speakers at the Sterling town hall made sure to say they were volunteers. Though passionate, this event avoided any of the yelling matches that have marked other recent in-person events in other jurisdictions.
Along with teleconference town halls, Comstock and her staff have pointed to her busy travel schedule as another indicator of her involvement, and accessibility, with her constituents.
“On Wednesday, the Congresswoman was in Manassas speaking to the local Rotary and answering questions, visiting a rehab heath care facility in Gainesville, as well as stopping into a local pharmacy talking about health care issues,” Marschner said “She ended the day in Great Falls for a Police Appreciation dinner hosted by local realtor, Bob Nelson at Brix restaurant with a full house.”
Along with healthcare, attendees also asked her in absentia for her stance on issues from transgender bathroom rights uses to the proliferation of guns in schools. With Comstock not in attendance to discuss her positions, her absence remained an overarching topic for many at the event.
“That woman would show up to the opening of an envelope,” said attendee Kona Gallagher of Ashburn, “so the fact that she is not here tonight to listen to our concerns and answer our questions in person is incredibly insulting to me and to all of us.”
Update 9:08 a.m. Feb. 24: The story has been updated to include Marschner’s comments