WILLINGBORO, N.J.— Representative Tom MacArthur knew well what he was getting into when he showed up in this Democratic stronghold on Wednesday.
The second-term lawmaker who had almost single-handedly resuscitated the House Republican health-care bill would hear from the constituents who now despised him for playing hero at their expense. He had come back to face a particular kind of music—the cacophony of boos, jeers, and deprecatory chants that make up the 21st century congressional town hall.
But MacArthur was determined to play his own song first. He would tell the health-care saga of his family: his biological mother who died of cancer when he was four, his step-mother who died of cancer many years later, and the most wrenching of all, his daughter Gracie who died at age 11 after struggling her entire brief life with a rare brain condition. A wealthy insurance executive before entering politics, MacArthur would use Gracie’s story as an ice-breaker, a reminder to the 200 or so antsy and angered constituents seated around him that he knew something about their anxiety over hospital bills and preexisting conditions, and to explain that he struck his deal with House conservatives because he genuinely wanted to improve the nation’s health insurance market.
He wanted to disarm them, but they did not want to be disarmed. And they did not want to hear Gracie’s story.
“Shame!” one constituent yelled almost as soon as MacArthur uttered his late daughter’s name.
“We’ve heard this story!” shouted another. “We know all about you!”
MacArthur appeared momentarily taken aback. “I will say shame on you, actually,” he replied, more in disappointment than in anger. “If you want me to listen to you, I’m going to ask you to listen to me.”
It was going to be that kind of night.
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Town hall meetings have long since lost their innocence as the purest incarnation of American representative democracy. In the post-Tea Party era, they are largely performative events, set pieces for the pre-ordained political backlash. Activist groups mobilize attendance, ensure television coverage and Facebook live-streams, prepare talking points and detailed questions for constituents to ask. Citizens confront their legislators with ever increasing and perhaps slightly rehearsed passion, sometimes reading their questions from a script or shouting a monologue aimed as much at the cameras in the back as at the congressman in front of them. In response, congressional offices are trying harder to ensure the event hall is filled with actual constituents, not outsiders bussed in from districts far and wide.
As town halls have lost their authenticity, many House Republicans are forgoing them entirely. In the week after passing legislation to reshape the nation’s health-care system, barely more than a dozen of the 238 GOP lawmakers have scheduled in-person constituent events. And none were higher on the marquee than MacArthur’s.
The Willingboro community center named for John F. Kennedy seemed ready for a much bigger star—perhaps a top-tier presidential primary contender—than a local congressman unknown outside his district until a few weeks ago. The parked cars snaked back more than a quarter-mile along the suburban streets leading up to the Kennedy Center, situated in the middle of a township in south Jersey a couple miles east of the Delaware River and the Pennsylvania border.
The strong showing suggested a venue much larger than it actually was: There were seats for about 200 people in a theater-in-the-round set-up, but hundreds more who lined up outside were turned away. A separate group of protesters picketed nearby, complete with a human-sized inflated chicken, signs that read “This Congressmen Hates Women,” and others much nastier than that. Police patrolled outside, and electronic signs warned constituents that neither large bags nor any signs or posters would be allowed inside. (A few of the demonstrators stayed all night, watching the town hall via Facebook on their phones until their batteries eventually died.) Those who did make it in wore stickers that said “MacArthur Constituent,” and many of them snuck in red and green handkerchiefs to wave in approval or disapproval.
MacArthur, 56, won his second term representing New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district in November with nearly 60 percent of the vote, an improvement over his 53-44 margin in 2014. But the district is more narrowly divided between the parties, split between heavily Republican Ocean County and the much more liberal Burlington County across the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
“We’re here to show him we’re unhappy and he should know we’re coming” in 2018, Penn Reagan, a 64-year-old retiree, told me just before MacArthur entered the room. But he added: “I’m not actually expecting to hear anything I want to hear.”
A former councilman who speaks in the easy manner of a warm but practiced politician, MacArthur chose to hold his town hall in Willingboro precisely because the majority-African-American town is on the other side of his political base.
“Donald Trump won 9 percent of the vote here,” he told the restive crowd, eliciting a few claps and chuckles. “I crushed it with 12 percent of the vote.”
Ostensibly, MacArthur had come to Willingboro to explain and defend the GOP’s American Health Care Act, and in particular the amendment he wrote that saved it. Back in January, he had been one of just nine House Republicans to vote against a budget bill that laid the procedural groundwork for the party to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Three months later, however, he was instrumental in the effort to do just that. MacArthur’s amendment bowed to a demand from the conservative House Freedom Caucus that the GOP bill allow states to seek a waiver opting out of some of Obamacare’s core insurance mandates, including its ban on insurers charging higher premiums to people with preexisting conditions. His deal with conservatives annoyed fellow members of the moderate Tuesday Group, of which MacArthur is one of three co-chairman. But it infuriated the 3rd district residents who lined up early on Wednesday evening to make sure they could confront him directly.
One by one, over a nearly five-hour marathon of questions, MacArthur’s constituents berated him in visceral terms over the health-care bill—and to a lesser extent, his steadfast support for President Trump. Not one of the dozens who spoke on Wednesday night praised either the AHCA or the president.
“I have sympathy for your mother. I have sympathy for your daughter. But you did not listen to the lessons they were trying to teach you,” Geoff Ginter, a 47-year-old medical assistant wearing his hospital scrubs, told MacArthur. Ginter described how his wife, who has a preexisting condition as a result of having survived breast cancer, would now have renewed fear because of the possibility that he could lose his insurance and cause her rates to skyrocket under the loophole MacArthur’s amendment could create. “You came after my wife,” Ginter said, his voice slow and rising. “You have been the single greatest threat to my family in the entire world. You are the reason I stay up at night.” When Ginter initially suggested he would not relinquish the microphone, two police officers began to edge closer to him. MacArthur allowed him to speak for 10 minutes, after which Ginter told him he didn’t even want to hear his response.
Other constituents trained their ire on Trump, demanding to know whether MacArthur would back a special prosecutor to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia (Not yet, he said) and practically pleading with him to stand up to the president. “Why do you Republicans all sit and listen to Donald Trump lie?” asked one woman. “He lies and lies and lies. You have to know he’s lying.” Trump was the topic MacArthur least wanted to discuss, and he replied with something of a refrain. “I’m neither going to defend nor attack everything the president says,” he answered. At another point, he drew more boos when he said of Trump, “Congress is not the board of directors for the White House, and I’m not going to answer for everything he says or does.”
At the beginning of the event, MacArthur had promised to stay until every question had been asked. And despite a couple of moments when the room nearly deteriorated into shouting, he kept his word. Though the crowd thinned from a couple hundred to a couple dozen as the hours dragged on, the congressman stayed standing, and responding, for nearly five hours.
“You’ve really taken a beating tonight,” a constituent named Ruth Gage told him. For both the congressman and the crowd, that appeared to be the point.
MacArthur kept his cool—mostly. When one constituent shouted him down as “an idiot!” MacArthur complained about the lack of civil discourse. “I wonder,” he said to the crowd, “how any one of you would perform in Congress with that attitude.”
After MacArthur asked them at another point not to be “disrespectful,” one man replied: “Can I be disrespectful on behalf of all the people you’re going to kill?”
* * *
Through it all, however, a strange thing happened: A Republican congressman had a candid, detailed discussion about health-care policy with his constituents. When they spoke up on behalf of a single-payer, Medicare-for-All plan, MacArthur explained why he didn’t support it. When he warned about allowing “government bureaucrats” to make too many health-care decisions, they asked why it would be any worse than insurance company “bureaucrats” doing the same thing now.
The residents who came to give MacArthur a piece of their mind were deeply familiar with the particulars of the bill he supported and the amendment he authored, because they knew it could impact them directly. When one attendee asked people to stand if they had a preexisting condition, nearly everyone in the room rose. They knew that even though MacArthur was correct in saying the GOP maintained the requirement that insurers offer coverage to everyone, his amendment could allow companies in some states to charge them much more money for a policy.
A 39-year-old named Derek described how because of a heart condition he had had since he was 23, he could be priced out of the insurance market if he lost his job and went without coverage for more than two months if the AHCA became law. “This is something that is very real,” he told MacArthur. “Without health-care coverage, I’m dead.”
The congressman acknowledged his point. “Your question shows that you really understand the issue. You’ve nailed the issue,” MacArthur told him. He explained that the Republican proposal included $138 billion to help that class of people, who could face steep rates in high-risk pools in states that received waivers from the federal government. Health policy analysts have warned that pot of money won’t be nearly sufficient, and by the end of the evening, MacArthur conceded that might be the case. “If it turns out it’s not enough,” he said, “I will be the first on line to make sure it is enough.”
After hours of back-and-forth, that seemed about as far as anyone had moved. MacArthur listened intently to the emotional pleas and angry lashings of his constituents, but he voiced no regrets about his handling of health care or his support for the AHCA. When someone would vociferously defend Obamacare or denounce Trump, MacArthur would point back to the Republican voters across the Pine Barrens: “I hear you, but there are loads of other people who don’t see it that way.” It was a polite way of pointing to the scoreboard, and the 59 percent of 3rd district voters who sided with him in November.
There are indications, however, that MacArthur’s position isn’t as safe as he might assume. Political forecasters have moved his district a notch toward Democrats after the Republicans voted for their unpopular bill last week, making it the kind of House seat that could flip parties in a wave election. A former national-security staffer who coordinated anti-ISIS strategy for the Obama White House, Andy Kim, has already started raising money to challenge him and could make a stronger opponent than the Democratic nominee last year, who was haunted by legal troubles. And while there didn’t appear to be any Trump voters in attendance on Wednesday night, there were Democrats and independents who had voted for MacArthur. “I told everyone you were the best thing since cream cheese,” Ellen Bertuglia, 73, told the congressman. “I see something that’s happened to you, and it scares me.” She said MacArthur had become too close to Trump and hadn’t kept his commitment to work with Democrats. “He zonked you,” Bertuglia said of the president.
In an interview later, Bertuglia said she was worried about the health-care bill (“I got pre-existing stuff all over”) and probably wouldn’t vote for MacArthur again. But she added a caveat: “If he stands up and does something about Trump, I might change my mind.”
“It’s a show,” Nmawa Toe, a 40-year-old computer repairman, told me after many in the crowd had left. “He wants to show that he’s not afraid, but he’s not answering any questions.”
Earlier in the evening, Toe had confronted MacArthur directly. “You’ve been talking a lot about your constituents on the other side of the Pine Barrens and how they affect your policy decisions,” he said. “If you want to come back here, if you want another term, you might want to listen to what these people have to say, too.”
MacArthur said it was a great question. “I’m always trying to find the intersection of what I believe and what my constituents believe,” he replied. The congressman seemed genuinely to believe he had found that sweet spot, notwithstanding the hundreds of people who disagreed, and who on Wednesday night tried so desperately to make him see that he had not.