Rare Sighting of GOP Texas Congressman at a Town Hall Occasioned by Boos, Criticism

Michael Burgess town hall
Congressman Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, hosts a rare GOP town hall at a high school gym.  Chris Hooks

This spring, most of the Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation are skipping public events, wary of interacting with angry constituents in an uncontrolled setting. On Saturday, Representative Michael Burgess bucked the trend, holding an open hall at a high school in Flower Mound. For more than two hours, he fielded questions from an audience of about 1,000.

The crowd packed the bleachers of Marcus High School’s gym, and Burgess, confined to a small patch of an otherwise empty basketball court, gave the impression of being surrounded. Which he was, in a way — opponents of the president heavily outnumbered supporters — but the tone of the event was confrontational, not hostile, and it provided a few novel opportunities to put Burgess on the record.

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The major topic of discussion, as it has been at other town halls this year, is the future of the Affordable Care Act. (Burgess is playing an important role in the effort to draft a replacement plan.) One woman asked Burgess if he would commit to maintaining access to contraception as part of whatever might replace Obamacare. Burgess said the matter was not yet up for discussion, and declined to otherwise commit himself beyond saying, “I’ll take a look at it.”

Another woman — almost all of the questioners were women — told Burgess, a doctor, that she had multiple sclerosis. Managing the neurological disease, she said, took an immense amount of personal effort, but it also took a hell of a lot of money — up to “$180,000 a year.” By eliminating insurance mechanisms such as lifetime caps on benefits, Obamacare had greatly improved her access to health care.

“I am not somebody that insurance companies can profit off of,” she said. “I’ve lost that game.” Would Burgess fight to maintain rules like the one eliminating lifetime caps? “Yes,” Burgess said, a promise that won applause from much of the audience.

The other big topic: Russia. Here and elsewhere questioners tried to get Burgess to either fully identify with Trump or to put distance between himself and the president, but Burgess preferred to stay comfortably away from either position.

One woman, who identified herself as a “baby boomer from Frisco” and a “registered Republican,” thanked Burgess for coming and told him that “we respect you and think a lot of you.” But, “there is great concern in my community about the connections with the Russian government.” Mightn’t Burgess and his colleagues do more to reassure the American people on this front?

Burgess’ response was peculiar. “I’ve been concerned about Russian influence, particularly in Ukraine,” where he recently served as an election monitor. He had long been a hawk on Russia, he said. But the previous administration had been soft on Russia, too. It was a problem for both sides.

Another woman noted that Burgess had repeatedly voted against measures that would compel Trump to release his tax returns, citing a concern about his business interests. “Why do you think it’s in our best interests to not know that information?”

Burgess response was again peculiar — he saw the push to make Trump’s tax returns public a sort of violation of his civil rights. “If Congress can do that to the president,” he said, “they can do that to any one of you.” Moreover, Trump had already released his required financial disclosure forms, a much lesser accounting of his ties. “That is what is required by law,” he said.

Another woman, who identified herself as a “proud Muslim American,” took to the mic to note her concern about the president’s relationship with figures like Steve Bannon. She urged Burgess to “stand up to the white nationalists.” Here, too, Burgess would not let himself be drawn out. The “president has sole discretion to decide who his people are.” It was none of his business.

What about, asked another woman, Trump’s comments that journalists are the “enemies of the American people?” The congressman began his reply with a joke: “Well, with the possible exception of the Dallas Morning News,” the media’s alright, he guessed. But criticism of the press is warranted. “I think the responsibility of the media has been abrogated,” he said, and there have been “many times in my 14 years in office” when he wished the media had been fairer.

In that respect, Burgess is like a lot of Republican members of Congress. They may be uncomfortable with Trump’s tone, but they’re more or less comfortable with his worldview. And even if they do find Trump’s views troubling, many represent very conservative districts where the president is popular.

Burgess is not in danger of losing his seat. He’s served in Congress since 2002, and in that time no Democratic challenger has cracked 38 percent. In Denton County, which constitutes the majority of his district, Hillary Clinton won barely 37 percent. He represents a safe, conservative district, and conservatives are going to be the people he continues to listen to the most.

But most who asked a question of Burgess at the town hall were respectful, and the crowd repeatedly applauded him for hosting the event. There were a few ill-formed questions, some rants, and a woman who shattered Godwin’s Law with such force that it may never recover. Standard Q&A stuff, in other words. About the worst thing to happen, from the congressman’s POV, is that he got booed a bit. Which poses the question: Why are his colleagues so reticent to hold town halls?

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly indicated that Frisco is not a part of Michael Burgess’ district. However, a portion of the city does lie within his district. The Observer regrets the error.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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