Minutes before the U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne held his 76th town hall, police announced the venue had hit its capacity of 250 persons — upsetting hundreds more who were denied entry and setting the tone for the contentious evening.
Though Byrne and his staff have hosted many constituent events at the Via Health, Fitness and Enrichment Center in Mobile, this was the first since the election of President Donald Trump and seemed to bring out a more confrontational crowd.Attendance at the event, which was aided by some organized on social media, proved to be too much for the venue and was capped. An employee told Lagniappe a fire marshall wouldn’t allow any more people into Via, also adding that Byrne’s staff had “not wanted anyone standing.”
The situation caused some who were turned away accuse Byrne of trying to control what was expected to be an angry crowd, though Byrne’s communication director, Seth Morrow, strongly rejected that claim. Morrow said the staff added an additional room and doubled the initial size of the venue before anyone was turned away.
“The problem is when you get much over 250 it becomes more of a performance than a town hall meeting. You lose the close interaction that makes these town hall meetings productive,” he continued. “For those who didn’t make it in tonight, we will be holding a full slate of town halls in April, so there will be plenty of other opportunities.”
With the seating issues settled, Byrne did not appear to have dodged an angry crowd.
While some so-called “Midtown Democrats” told Byrne they’d supported him over his 2016 primary challenger, Dean Young, they also took aim at the Congressman’s shifting endorsement of Trump’s campaign and his vocal support of much of the new administration’s agenda.
Of the questions he fielded, the majority focused on Trump, though Byrne also discussed the House’s freshly unveiled plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, and his pending bill aimed at improving the quality and continuity of health care for military veterans.
One issue brought up repeatedly, though, was Russia.
Specifically, the crowd wanted to know Byrne’s thoughts on how Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and its alleged ties to members of Trump’s cabinet should be handled. Unlike some in the GOP, Byrne directly acknowledged Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election, though he did downplay its effectiveness.
“I am very disturbed by the fact — and it is a fact — that the Russian government tried to interfere with the presidential election in November. Here’s the truth, though, this is not the first time they’ve tried to interfere with an election around the world,” Byrne said. “They do it a lot, and they’re getting better at it, but what they did last fall here in the United States was pretty ham-handed, and it didn’t work.”
Byrne took a strong stand on Russia, calling the country “a threat to the United States of America.” However, while Byrne said “there needs to be an investigation” into the 2016 campaign, he believes it would be best handled by Congressional intelligence committees.
He did not, however, directly address Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from any federal probe involving the campaign. Asked specifically, Byrne said he knew of “no information that would justify [appointing] a special prosecutor” to review the concerns about Russia and the Trump campaign, but said he’d “ask for one” if presented with such information.
“There are people in this room who know what I’ve done in the past when there have been great powers against me, and I’ll do it again if the time comes,” Byrne said. “When I stood up to the corruption in our two-year college system, I knew they were going to come after me, and I did it anyway. If we’ve got to do that with the federal government, then we’ll do it again.”
A resident of South Baldwin County brought up the BP oil spill, which she said came with a hard lesson about “how important the environment is to the economy” on the Gulf Coast. To that end, she wanted to know if Byrne supported Trump’s plans to rollback provisions of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].“We are downstream of practically the whole state of Alabama,” she added. “From Huntsville on down I-65 into Mississippi and over into Georgia, if they dump oil in a creek up there, sooner or later, it’s going to end up in our bay.”
Despite having been critical of the EPA expanding certain authorities in the past, Byrne said he “fully supports” the clean air and clean water acts and “does not support doing away with the EPA” — an idea floated last month in a bill from Rep. Matt Gaetz [R, Fla.]“There are times when the EPA has gone too far. They weren’t doing anything to protect the environment, but they sure hurt a lot of people and cost them their jobs, and I also stand for people’s jobs,” he said. “I think there’s a way for us to balance maintaining jobs and building our economy while taking care of the environment you and I love so much.”
Though many in the crowd disagreed with Byrne on certain issues, he expressed appreciation for those who made an effort to attend, adding that the “real freedom” enjoyed in U.S. is the only thing that makes forums like Tuesday’s possible.
“What makes us who we are is partly shown by the people here tonight,” Byrne said. “They don’t get to do this in Russia. They don’t get to do this in Iran, but we do this in America, and I proud of the fact that we get to.”