In a much-anticipated town hall held Thursday night in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Pat Toomey said little that would surprise his constituents.
The conservative lawmaker still wants to overhaul the American healthcare system and the tax code. He still doesn’t support raising the minimum wage.
But the town hall wasn’t anticipated because Pennsylvanians don’t know where the two-term senator stands on big issues. It was because it was the first time Toomey held one of these events in front of a live, not entirely hand-picked audience since President Donald Trump’s election in November, and liberal activists have been hounding him to appear before the public.
They got their wish, but not in the desired form.
Rather than take questions from a noisy auditorium of fired-up constituents, Toomey agreed to a televised event with 54 guests. Thirty spots were open to members of the public who signed up online, while the other 24 slots were doled out by the local Republican and Democratic parties. (The senator held a similar event in Harrisburg last month before an invitation-only crowd and took some questions from constituents via social media.)
The result Thursday night was a mostly calm and controlled conversation that shed some light on Toomey’s positions, but largely left his critics unsatisfied.
“This is a fake town hall,” Mark Pinsley of South Whitehall, Pennsylvania told the senator as part of a prepared question. “There’s only 50 people here representing nearly 12 million people.”
Toomey responded by saying he’s held more town halls over his career in the senate than any other statewide elected official “that I know of.”
He also said he preferred the television studio format because it was more conducive to civil conversation.
“I’m willing to do town halls, but let’s be candid: There are some people that don’t want to have a constructive conversation,” Toomey said. “There are some people that want to have a disruptive event.”
Some of that disruptive energy crowded the plaza outside the PBS39 television studios in Bethlehem. Dozens of protesters gathered to pressure Toomey on immigration and healthcare reform. Many also voiced displeasure with the format of the town hall and what they consider the senator’s general unresponsiveness to constituents.
Ed Sokalski of Solebury Township, Pennsylvania held a sign that showed Toomey with his head in the sand his posterior in the air.
“Toomey seems to be ignoring the voters so I made this up a few months ago,” he said. “It’s a joke town hall.”
When it came to the substance of the conversation, Toomey largely stuck to party orthodoxy and his well-vetted conservative principles.
He did, however, criticize President Donald Trump on a few points.
Toomey blasted the president’s response to the violence that followed a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump said afterward there were good people among the hordes of neo-nazis and white supremacists that descended on the city. Toomey called that characterization “disturbing.”
He also criticized Trump’s decision to pardon former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“Law enforcement people have to be accountable to the law like everyone else,” Toomey said. “And if sheriffs and police departments can ignore a legitimate court order then we’ve lost the rule of law in this country.”
Toomey further diverged from Trump when he affirmed Russian attempts to interfere in the last presidential election and emphasized the importance of investigating those attempts.
“I think Vladimir Putin is on a mission to discredit Western democracies generally,” Toomey said. “And because we are the leading Western democracy he very much wants to discredit us.”
The Republican has a history of publicly disavowing some of Trump’s more controversial statements and actions. He did, however, vote for the president and has largely supported the main planks of Trump’s agenda so far.
Toomey praised the president for assembling “a very good cabinet.” That characterization drew some sarcastic laughs from an audience that seemed to lean left.
Although one could sense a quiet agitation among some of the audience members, it rarely boiled over into open contempt.
One exception came toward the end of the broadcast when a young man stepped to the microphone and informed the senator his own daughter had been kidnapped. The information was false, meant to dramatize how families can be torn asunder by immigration enforcement.
Before the man could finish his question, a pair of security guards wrestled him backstage. Toomey brushed off the commotion.
“That’s a ridiculous question,” he said.
Looking ahead toward the next congressional term, Toomey said he expected lawmakers to prioritize a storm relief bill for victims of Hurricane Harvey. He dismissed as unrealistic President Trump’s threat to shut down the government unless Congress funds a wall along the Mexican border.
“I’m not sure how serious the President is about that,” Toomey said.
Toomey said he hopes his Senate colleagues will try again to repeal and replace Obamacare after their efforts floundered earlier this year. He also believes there will be a major push to overhaul the U.S. tax code, which he said “might be the worst tax code in the world.”