Hundreds of constituents came out Saturday to Congressman Gary Palmer’s town hall meeting at Hoover City Hall, each of them carrying two signs, one saying “agree,” the other saying “disagree.” They showed one sign when they liked what they heard and flashed the other when they didn’t.
But unlike some congressional town halls held since the election, which have devolved into partisan rancor‚ and elected officials running away from their constituents — Palmer’s meeting was largely a polite conversation between a politician and those he represents in Congress.
Even so, disagreements were impossible to miss.
While the meeting remained civil, Palmer’s constituents challenged him. One topic was Planned Parenthood funding, which saw nothing but support from the sign holders. Another was about comments he had previously made about Donald Trump being a “megalomaniac” before he became the GOP nominee last year.
Palmer said he felt the need to hear from his constituents despite rowdy scenes that have unfolded in other districts since the election. “I think we need to make ourselves available to our constituents. Even if we don’t agree, I want to hear from you.”
For a deeply Republican district, the concerns of those in attendance seemed to diverge from typical conservative values and seemed more pointed toward holding congress accountable for actions that impact their district: funding for education, background checks for gun purchases, and for elected officials to challenge the current administration. “We want you to do what is morally right,” one man said, referring to congressional leaders standing up to the Trump administration’s recent actions on immigration.
Some of those in attendance had been in line since 3 a.m. in order to get the opportunity to ask Palmer a question. The city council chamber was filled to capacity with hundreds more waiting outside, many holding signs reading, “Resist” or “Free the Press.” The congressman took a minute to walk outside and greet those who couldn’t get inside.
As TV reporters attached microphones to his jacket, someone commented that Palmer looked like he was being prepped for surgery. “Might be like a colonoscopy,” Palmer responded.
The meeting was originally slated to be held at Hoover Tactical Firearms, a massive gun outlet about a mile away from Hoover City Hall. Palmer said he changed venues because his office “got some emails from folks who felt uncomfortable there, and I understand that. I want people to be able to come in and talk to me and not feel intimidated and have a civil and respectful dialogue.”
Why choose a gun store for a meeting in the first place? “Lots of stuff goes on there,” Palmer said. “It’s an easy place to find. It’s got a huge parking lot and a bigger room. We’ve been involved with a number of meetings there. As you can tell, this is a tougher place for parking.”
Those who got the opportunity to speak with Palmer kept their questions polite. Most speakers were able to finish before the audience began cheering or booing.
“We need to know what’s happening,” said Carole Griffin. “We need to know about [Trump’s] conflicts of interest, and right now the legislature is our best check on that… You are in a very ennobled position to show this president that this legislature is willing to challenge him.”
Griffin asked Palmer if he would sign Congressman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Resolution of Inquiry, which would force Congress to vote on whether or not to investigate Trump’s potential conflicts of interests and possible ties to Russian operatives in the months leading up to the campaign.
“I am not going to sign Congressman Nadler’s resolution,” Palmer said to a cacophony of boos from the crowd. “I haven’t read it, for one thing. I’ll look at it and do my due diligence on this. I think the best way for us to go about this would be for our intelligence agencies to look into this, because I can promise you they don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat.”
Throughout the hourlong meeting, every speaker expressed various concerns, many of them regarding hot-button issues, that the congressman tried to answer despite being challenged by the crowd. His stance on defunding Planned Parenthood perhaps drew the most ire.
Sheila Roche, who lives in Palmer’s district, spoke about how defunding of Planned Parenthood would affect the services provided for women there. “I would like to strongly protest this action by Congress to defund Planned Parenthood,” she said. “For a hundred years Planned Parenthood has provided health services to women and men… In 1970 Planned Parenthood first received federal funding when President Nixon signed the Title-10 Funding Bill and he said, ‘No woman should be denied access to family planning because of her economic condition,’” Roche said to applause.
Reimbursement for birth control, breast exams, cancer screening, sex education, and LGBT services could all be on the chopping block, Roche said. “Abortions are totally exempt from any kind of any kind of federal reimbursement funds. So my question to you and our Congress today is, how do you and others justify defunding Planned Parenthood and how is this not a war against women? It is deplorable.”
Palmer quickly responded saying, “I totally support defunding Planned Parenthood and will stick by that. We’ll head to the next question.” Pressed by Roche to justify his stance, Palmer said, “We have over 3,000 community health centers that are funded by the federal government. I realize most of you in this room aren’t going to agree with this, but Planned Parenthood gets reimbursed for most of their services through Medicaid, but they’re not doing the cancer screening stuff. They’re referring that to community health clinics. I don’t think taxpayers should be required to fund this.”
Another theme that many touched on during the discussion was congressional leaders standing up to what some characterized as the Trump administration’s “culture of violence and hate,” noting a rise in attacks and threats toward Jewish Community Centers and mosques.
One man, John Herring, stood up and read to Palmer what the congressman had said about Trump before the primaries. “I think he is a megalomaniac. That worries me. I think he will make a terrible president.” Herring said, quoting Palmer.
“Since the election, however, we have heard no criticisms, no challenges, nothing,” Herring said. “Congressman, I would like you not to address this crowd, but I’d like you to look into those cameras and address President Trump and tell him where you differ from him, where you challenge him when he is wrong,” Herring said. “I’d like you to begin with his belief that those reporters back there are the enemies of America.”
“Well, one of the things I said in many speeches is, I always reserve the right to be wrong,” Palmer said. “I don’t know if he’s a megalomaniac or not. I had a lot of opinions about him at the time, and he may be. But he is the president. As far as his treatment of the press — I think some of it’s warranted,” Palmer said. “But I don’t think it’s true across the board. I know the local media here has been very respectful. I think the president could do a better job of building bridges and relationships. I’ll do what I can to encourage that as soon as I meet him.”
Another issue brought up was Palmer’s stance on the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gasses. He has recently introduced a bill that would remove greenhouse gasses from the agency’s list of air pollutants.
He said the change “won’t have any impact” on America’s ecosystems. “The goal is about who makes laws, Congress or federal agencies,” he said. “The bill is about stopping the EPA overreach, not stopping the EPA. They have usurped constitutional authority, which is a huge threat to our government. It denies you the right to representative government when an agency is making laws and you don’t get to vote anyone out of office.”
While the discussion touched very little on actual policy matters and actions that will be taken, Palmer listened and, even when the room disagreed, made an effort to answer questions. The crowd indicated appreciation for his consideration — even after challenging the congressman on nearly every topic.