At his Lakewood town hall on Tuesday, August 15, Senator Cory Gardner saw a lot of red.
Before the event, audience members were handed signs that had nothing more than a red thumbs-down and a green thumbs-up on either side, and the crowd of mostly Gardner detractors waved the red finger, so to speak, at Gardner with reckless abandon at any mention of his conservative leanings or Donald Trump.
Signs weren't Gardner's only problem yesterday, when the senator held three town halls along the Front Range. Despite a moderator at the one at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood repeatedly asking members of the crowd to remain respectful and lower their voices, hecklers interrupted Gardner nearly every time he tried to answer a question. A man was even led off by police after yelling "Fucking whore!" several times at a woman who'd asked him to quiet down. Spats broke out in the audience, with Gardner supporters telling his detractors to "shut up," and vice versa. The fights even spilled out into the parking lot after the meeting's end. It was like a really bad traffic jam, and Gardner was the Civic that crapped out in the fast lane.
In media coverage of the town hall, as well as at the gathering itself, hecklers drowned out the voices of genuinely curious and concerned constituents. A woman who identified herself as a rape victim asked the senator how he explained to his three daughters his support of a president who has boasted about committing an assault against a woman. Another woman, voice shaking, said that Trump's strong rhetoric about North Korea scared her, and she asked Gardner, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, if he would support a Democratic bill that would strip Trump of unilateral power to launch nuclear weapons. Gardner's answer didn't offer her much comfort: He told the woman he wouldn't strip the president of his authority in that way. But at least he answered honestly.
The room of mostly Gardner (and thereby Trump) detractors didn't fully represent the senator's constituents, a fact that Gardner repeatedly brought up. When audience members asked questions about renewable energy, pressing the senator to throw his full support behind a green economy, Gardner reminded them of his obligation to his constituents in other parts of the state whose livelihoods depend on oil and gas production. When health care came up, Gardner reminded the audience that Colorado overwhelmingly voted down a single-payer health-care system in November.
Then there were Gardner's non-answers. When an audience member asked if he would support the RAC Act, essentially the Republican version of DACA, Gardner said he would talk to one of the bill's sponsors, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to find out more about it. When more audience members pressed Gardner about how he would avoid a confrontation with North Korea, he repeated a line about the importance of "peaceful negotiations," a hard argument to make when his own party's leader is using words like "fire and fury."
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Maybe the audience wouldn't have been so upset if Gardner's office had picked up its phone every once in a while — even for his supporters — over the past few months. A physician told Gardner that she had called his office multiple times over the summer to discuss her support of the ACA repeal bill, but to no avail. She reached out to several other Republican leaders, she said, and got an answer only from Senator Ted Cruz's office.
Adding insult to injury, Gardner made several well-intentioned but ill-timed jokes to ease the tension. But to his credit, he listened intently to every question. He hit the stage two minutes before he was scheduled to speak, at 3:30 p.m., and left at 5 p.m. on the dot. Several people in the audience wondered out loud when they'd see him again in person, as yesterday's town halls were his first such in-person speaking engagements in over a year.
As attendees left the auditorium at CCU, they got to pose for pictures with Gardner — a cardboard cut-out of him, anyway. Meanwhile, in a corner of the parking lot, a small group of Trump supporters paced around, waving Trump banners in the air and heckling people who were calling them racists.