By Briana Vannozzi
“Push back! Push back!”
They were made for TV moments — angry constituents challenging Republican Congressman Leonard Lance, who did his best fielding tough questions lobbed by a fiery crowd.
“Why should people trust you when you prioritize financial gains over women’s rights and over the future of our environment?” asked Hillsborough resident Michael Scardina to applause.
There was no warm welcome and not a single empty seat in the 950-person theater. Another 400 constituents flooded an overflow room. Outside, constituents who couldn’t get seats held signs and chanted. The largest crowd in his career of 41 town hall meetings. The issue that galvanized much of this resistance movement threaded the conversation.
“My question is about health care and why there is a need to make this a partisan issue. Why repeal? Why not reform the ACA?” asked Frenchtown resident Caroline Scutt.
“Thank you. That is an excellent question,” Lance said. “I do not think the health care of the American people are a partisan issue and what I have said is that I favor not a repeal alone and I have consistently said that I do not favor repeal alone and the record will clearly indicate that. What I have said is repeal and replace and more recently I have defined that as repairing the ACA moving forward.”
Lance twice this year backed legislation making it easier to repeal the ACA. His constituents noted health care wasn’t the only area Lance changed positions, citing his 2009 support for the American Clean Energy and Security Act, while also helping to clear the way for some of the country’s largest pipeline routes.
“You stood up for the Highlands Act to protect New Jersey water, you supported preserving green acres in Clinton Township. And you mentioned before how you were against the PennEast Pipeline, yet you are now supporting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Eric Fiori of Phillipsburg.
“I believe that the Keystone Pipeline was examined thoroughly by the Obama administration, including the Department of State, and I believe that the examination indicated that it should move forward, but for political reasons during the campaign, that did not occur,” Lance said.
“I think he tries to be a moderate Republican or tries to give the view that he is, but he has veered away from his constituents. He has gone far right and we’re here to bring him back,” said Carol Christofilis of Annandale.
Across the nation, House and Senate Republicans holding town halls during this congressional break — recently dubbed “resistance recess” — have faced raucous crowds and heated debate.
And here in New Jersey Lance was the only GOP congressional member to hold a face-to-face meeting with voters.
It’s a mirror image of the 2009 Tea Party protests that erupted during Democratic town halls in the wake of Obamacare.
“I really want to thank him for coming and hearing what we have to say and I think he probably knew what to expect coming in because there’s a lot of anger and let’s face it, there were 900 people here. How many town halls have 900 people that he’s held before?” said Basking Ridge resident Suzanne Glassman.
Some of the strongest frustration came in response to questions about President Trump. Voters pressed Lance on efforts forcing the president to release his tax returns. Lance tiptoed around an answer and wouldn’t stray from party lines when asked about the foreign countries meddling in the election.
“If it turns out that we investigate and he has ties to Russia and things like that do you support impeachment?” asked Bruce Tunkel.
“I am a lawyer by training and I certainly do not want to prejudice how I might have to vote on any matter of that regard. I think the responsibility in the House of Representatives to impeach or not to impeach is one of our most important responsibilities. As you know, an impeachment is the equivalent of an indictment and then the United States Senate would be the judge and jury, in effect, and it would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict and remove a president or other high official from office,” Lance said. “I think your larger question, if I might extrapolate, is whether there should be an investigation.”
Lance went on to say he agreed there was interference with the election, but would leave the investigations to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Some of his voters say they have little confidence in that. His district is a target for Democrats who recognize Lance only won the vote by about 6 percent. He’ll hold a second town hall this Saturday — same location, also expected to be full.
Republican strategist Chris Russell and Democratic strategist Bill Caruso talked about what’s been dubbed “recess rage” at town halls with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.