WILLINGBORO, NJ -- For nearly five hours Wednesday night, Republican congressman Tom MacArthur took questions during a marathon constituent town hall meeting in a heavily Democratic area in his district.
“I want thank you for showing up and at least giving us the chance to express our concerns directly,” said Joseph Novemsky, a former public employee union representative, at the end of the night, before adding: “Doesn’t mean I am going to vote for you.”
By then the crowd had thinned.
But for several hours before that, a heated back and forth debate between crowd and congressman had replaced any run of the mill question-and-answer session.
MacArthur, who brokered a deal to resurrect and pass the House GOP’s latest health care bill, could barely speak for a minute at a time without the room interrupting with boos, jeers and shout-outs. The most chaotic moments were as dramatic, perhaps even more so, than some of the other rowdy town halls that have erupted in congressional districts across the county this year.
“When you want me to answer and you’re quiet, I’ll respond,” MacArthur said at one point exasperated, struggling to get through any one answer. “You have to decide if you want me to answer your questions.”
But by the end of the long evening, the crowd had dissipated and calmed considerably. He waited until everyone who wanted to speak got a chance.
MacArthur started by telling his personal story – of losing his mom to cancer as well as the death of his 11-year old daughter, who was plagued by major health issues.
The people in the room interrupted him just as he mentioned them. One voice broke through: “We know your story.” Another yelled, “Answer our questions.”
Folks in the room over the course of the night called him a liar and shouted “shame.” They chanted that they wanted a “single payer,” Medicare- for-all type system and sang chants that his career would end as a result of his health care vote.
From cancer, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, mental illness and addiction, person after person told a detailed story about their own complicated and costly medical conditions or hardship in their families.
Many expressed their concerns and anger over the House bill that would allow insurance companies to charge people with pre-existing conditions if their state received a waiver and they had a gap in coverage. At one point a woman asked everyone with a pre-existing condition to stand, and the majority of the people in the room stood up.
“You have been the single biggest threat to my family in the entire world,” yelled Geoff Ginter from Pine Beach, pointing at the congressman. Ginter, a medical assistant, said his two children both had health conditions and his wife was a cancer survivor. “You are the reason I stay up at night. You are the reason I can’t sleep. What happens if I lose my job?
“I am sympathetic of your mother. I have sympathy for your daughter, but you did not learn the lessons they were trying to teach you,” Ginter went on.
“We're not trying to take insurance away from anyone,” Rep. MacArthur said. “Just because someone says your premiums are going to go through the roof, doesn't make it true.”
“I am not saying this is a perfect solution, but the current system isn't perfect either and that is what we are trying to fix,” the congressman said in response to another question. “If [our bill] doesn't work perfectly, I'll be the first to say we need to make more adjustments.”
It was clear that many in the room not only had personal stories to share, but detailed knowledge and questions of the House bill and health care policy. They asked about how state-run, high-risk pools might work, safeguards for essential health benefits, specific tax cuts in the bill and dollar amounts set aside for various programs.
“This is one of the most educated audiences I have ever been around,” said Lavonne Bebler Johnson, a former mayor of the town.
Some of the most heated exchanges came from two young students who demanded the congressman answer whether rape could count as a pre-existing condition under the Republican plan.
“How did it pass your conscience to allow rape to be considered a pre-existing condition, forcing women to choose between justice and protecting their affordable health care?” asked Joseph Zetkulic, 18, receiving a near standing ovation in the room.
The congressman said he would not denigrate an act of violence or a victim’s experience by calling it a “pre-existing condition.” He insisted under his amendment insurance companies could not discriminate by gender.
Health care policy experts have debated whether rape and other histories of domestic violence could count as a pre-existing condition in this way.
But the outrage in the room was hardly limited to health care. Several people expressed dissatisfaction with President Trump and his administration.
“I am concerned I have a president who attacks the free press,” said one man. “What is it going to take for you and your fellow Republicans to open your eyes and realize what is going on…when are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?” he added.
Several people asked about the president’s decision this week to fire FBI Director James Comey and asked Rep. MacArthur to call for a special prosecutor to continue the investigation of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I am not here to defend Donald Trump,” the congressman replied, but he added that he did not see a special prosecutor as a “magic silver bullet.” He wanted to see the results of the House and Senate investigations first. The crowd, furious, drowned him out with boos.
“This congressional district elected Donald Trump by a seven-point margin,” MacArthur concluded at the end of the night. “For every one of you that feels as strong as you do, there are more than you that feel the other way….That’s reality.
“Maybe no matter what I do, half the people will be disappointed with me half the time. Maybe that’s just the nature of it,” he said. “I am doing the best I can.”