Hundreds of constituents grill Issa at Orange County town hall - San Diego Union-Tribune
June 3, 2017, 1:45pm
Seven months since the tightest federal race in the country made Rep. Darrell Issa the most vulnerable member of Congress, the Vista Republican headed to a stronghold of his district for another raucous town hall meeting Saturday.
After boos, picketing, some yelling and tough questions from constituents at a San Juan Capistrano high school (plus a 20-foot-tall inflatable chicken bearing a resemblance to President Donald Trump in the parking lot) Issa said he is not fretting next year’s midterm elections — the primary is 367 days away.
“Not a bit,” he said after speaking with constituents for nearly two hours, his button-down shirt still tucked in, still fielding questions from his feet (he rejected a staffer’s suggestion that he sit down), but on at least his second caffeinated soda.
Issa’s confidence came after he was asked how he feels about the American Health Care Act, a bill that will repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. According to a Congressional Budget Office study, it would cause 23 million people to become uninsured and increase premiums for people over 50.
Congressman Darrell Issa speaks to constituents at San Juan Capistrano High School on Saturday in Orange County.
“I want you to understand that one of the natures of the Affordable Care Act was that it was anti-choice because you could not choose not to take insurance,” Issa said, referring to a provision of the law that mandated people have insurance coverage, and was much-loathed by Republicans.
Plus, the new bill, which he helped pass in early May, has a financial incentive that should encourage people to continue to buy insurance.
And he wants clarity about any sort of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as any ties that the Trump campaign might have had to the Kremlin, he said after he was twice asked about the issue.
“When is the Republican party going to — and you, individually — going to stand up and recognize the fact that we still have an adversary in the form of the Russian government?” Brent Blackhurst, a lifelong Republican from Oceanside, asked.
In a theater packed with a largely anti-Trump and anti-Issa crowd, Blackhurt’s line of questioning brought the roughly 500 attendees to their feet for the second and final time of the morning. The first time was also in response to a question about Russia.
Issa drew back to his days leading the House Oversight Committee and the probes they conducted into the Obama administration. Answers to the Russia question, likewise, need to be figured out, he said.
He wants to know what happened, but there are limits to what he can do, and what he’s willing to do, he said.
He can make sure that Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to handle the FBI’s investigation, can do his job.
“I want him to have the freedom and the funds to do it. And that last part, I can tell you, is where I have more power,” he said.
But he’s not going to be the loudest voice in Congress rooting for an inquiry.
“You don't hear a lot because I want him to do his job, and I don’t want to be heckling or be in the middle of it,” Issa said.
There were approximately 300 protesters outside the theater where Issa spoke, and most were concerned about health care, the environment and the Russia investigation. Most of the questions attendees asked the congressman were about those national topics, but a few asked him about a planned Orange County toll road and aircraft traffic patterns near John Wayne Airport.
His forum with constituents at San Juan Hills High School in southern Orange County was the second town hall-style meeting he’s had with his constituents since he began his ninth term in January. Like the first event in March in Oceanside, this one was packed, with most in attendance to show their opposition to their representative in the House, and who also saw Issa as a proxy for Trump.
Last June Issa finished first in a three-way primary, receiving 50.8 percent of the vote, beating Democrat Doug Applegate, who received 45.5 percent, and far-left Independent Ryan Wingo, who received 3.7 percent. For a few months, it was the tightest race of Issa’s career in politics.
The margins were even closer in the general election in November, with Issa winning by 1,621 votes and 50.3 percent of the electorate, the tightest federal race in the country.
Since then, Issa, one of the most high-profile Republicans, has become a major target for Democrats and progressives who see his coastal California district as one they can flip in 2018. As Issa won in his district by a hair, Trump received just 43.2 percent of the electorate, behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Tim Sheehan, from Ladera Ranch, is one of those voters who backed Issa but not Trump. A lifelong Republican who comes from a Republican family, his apprehensions about Trump’s qualifications were clear during the campaign and caused him to do what was once verboten, he said.
“My father’s probably rolling over in his grave, but I voted for Clinton. I don’t like her, I don’t trust her, but I would do it again tomorrow,” he said.
But he still backed Issa.
“I voted for Issa because he’s a Republican. But because of our new administration, I’m taking more interest in policy. I think people are putting party over country, and that’s a mistake,” he said.
He came to the town hall meeting because he’s concerned about Russian interference. He’s not certain something nefarious is there, but it seems like Republicans are putting up roadblocks to stop people from figuring that out, he said, and it bothers him.
“Our constitution is in jeopardy,” he said.
Issa will face Applegate again in next year’s June 5 primary, as well as Mike Levin, another Democrat. Both major parties’ strategists are focused on the close margins from last year’s race, as well as the district’s willingness to support a Democrat in federal races despite a Republican voter registration advantage.
David Levin (no relation to Levin the candidate), who came from Carlsbad, said he hoped Issa would do more to oppose the White House’s agenda. Levin also wanted to give the congressman a chance to explain his positions.
“I came to see what Mr. Issa has to say and find out why, like lemmings off the cliff, he follows President Trump’s ‘covfefe’ politics,” Levin said. “Most importantly he seems to be a lapdog with Trump. He has voted 100 percent with every issue and belief that Trump comes up with.”
Karen Walsh, a Democrat from Ladera Ranch, said she regularly reads Issa’s newsletters in which he discusses less-polemical issues like his proposals for work visas, but she wanted to hear him defend his votes and positions on more controversial matters, like his support for the health care bill, and opposition to Planned Parenthood.
She said she also wants him to do more to get nuclear material out of the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She’s worried that any sort of problem with any waste stored there would be devastating.
“I’m a Realtor and having an accident of that scale would destroy millions in home equity and destroy the coast,” she said.
A series of grassroots organizations, the most outspoken of which is a group called “Indivisible,” has pressed Issa to hold town hall meetings in his district during House recesses.
The latest forum faced criticism because Issa’s office sent to homes in the most conservative parts of his district postcards with special promotional codes that allowed them to RSVP early for one of the meeting’s limited seats. Issa’s spokesman said they were trying to make sure that people who didn’t attend earlier events, particularly constituents who live near the venue or were likely to miss online announcements, had a chance to attend.
The remaining tickets that became available to all constituents last weekend were claimed in less than five minutes. Issa, however, also fielded questions on Friday afternoon outside his district office.