Lance faces constituents at contentious town hall

Lance faces constituents at contentious town hall

Rep. Leonard Lance smiles at his audience moments before undergoing a grueling 90-minute town hall in Branchburg. Photos by Robert Wiener
Rep. Leonard Lance smiles at his audience moments before undergoing a grueling 90-minute town hall in Branchburg. Photos by Robert Wiener

The challenging of Leonard Lance, the Republican congressman from New Jersey’s 7th District, began even before he was barraged with the first of many hostile questions during a 90-minute town hall in the packed Nash Theatre on the Raritan Valley Community College campus in Branchburg on Feb. 22.

After the crowd of some 900 finished reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, several members chanted the last two words of the oath, emphasizing liberty and justice “for all.”

Lance said he, too, believed in liberty and justice for all before he began calling on people in the audience who were waiting to address him.

It was the first of two large meetups with constituents the representative has scheduled during the year’s first Congressional recess, and was filled largely by opponents of President Donald Trump, who are upset with Lance’s support of many terms on the White House agenda. According to media reports there was an overflow room with 250 additional attendees, and 350 protesters outside the theater.

The first questioner asked why Lance opposes the controversial Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which Trump has promised to repeal and replace, though he has yet to offer specifics.

“I do not favor repeal without there being replacement,” Lance responded, saying there should be no denial of coverage based upon preexisting medical conditions, no lifetime caps on insurance coverage, and that young people should be allowed to remain on their parents’ policies until they are 26. His answer was received with a mix of cheers and boos, but he faced a more negative reaction to the next question: Why did he vote to defund Planned Parenthood?

“There are side effects to that,” said one woman in the audience, noting what she called dramatic increases in sexually-transmitted diseases since Planned Parenthood funds were cut. “He doesn’t care,” called out another. The questioner said the cuts primarily hurt “teenagers and people in poverty,” to cheers from the audience. 

Lance answered that he has consistently voted for bills containing the Hyde Amendment, a prohibition against federal funding of abortion services, in place since 1976. But upon suggesting that Planned Parenthood be split into two organizations — one which provides abortions, the other covering separate health and reproductive services — Lance was booed loudly again.

The Republican may draw the ire of the Trump administration, however, when he asserted that there should be an investigation by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees  of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. He was, again, jeered for saying the committees have records of being fair and bipartisan, but did hear some cheers when he said that Russia is no friend to the United States. “Vladimir Putin has been a bad actor on the world stage.” Even so, someone shouted, “So do something about it!”

When a young boy asked if the Congressman would hold Russia accountable for hacking into Democratic Party accounts during the presidential campaign, Lance answered in the affirmative, and advocated continued economic sanctions against the Kremlin. “Perhaps even increasing those sanctions,” he said.

The audience cheered for Lance when he said he didn’t think it was necessary to have a wall spanning the Mexican border. He scored more points after a speaker attacked newly installed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s program favoring vouchers and home schooling to replace public schools. Lance said he is a graduate and “proud supporter” of New Jersey public schools, and opposes “the funneling of money” away from the public schools.

This support faded minutes later when he was asked about his opposition to Congress increasing financial regulations on Wall Street trading after the nation’s fiscal collapse, which he said protected banking institutions that were “too big to fail.” The booing that followed gave expression to people’s fears that deregulation would take advantage of consumers and weaken an economy that had been strengthened under the Obama administration.

On another controversial issue, Lance said he was among the first Republicans in Congress to oppose the Trump administration’s travel bans on individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations. He said he favored refugees entering the United States “so long as they are fully vetted. It is a matter of national security,” he said in between boos.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening came when a man asked if Lance would support disclosure of Trump’s income tax returns, a question that was met with raucous applause. When the cheering died down nearly two minutes later, Lance’s response angered audience members. A proposal by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 9), he said, that would force Trump or the Internal Revenue Service to disclose the returns to the House Ways and Means Committee “went too far…The House Ways and Means Committee should not be looking at private individuals’ tax returns.” 

“But he’s the president,” someone yelled, followed by yet another chorus of boos.

The evening ended on the same fervent note that it began. A woman was cheered loudly when she charged that during his campaign, Trump “denigrated the United States, its intelligence agencies, and our free press. I am troubled to hear the president say complete falsehoods and accuse the free press of being fake news.” She asked why Republicans have not pushed back against his behavior, and how Lance might mobilize others in his party to do so, to which he said, “I favor a free and unfettered press.”

In a telephone interview with NJJN the following day, Lance described the interaction with his constituents as “vigorous.” “I certainly tried my best,” he said. Having watched fellow congressional Republicans engage in more hostile confrontations with voters, Lance said he thinks there are concerns with the new administration, particularly regarding health-care policy and some of the statements of the president.

Will hearing the outrage of so many of Lance’s constituents persuade him to distance himself from the administration?

“I have always been true to my own values and that will continue to be the case,” he said. n

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