The Salt Lake Tribune: Will it be as raucous as last time? Rep. Chris Stewart to hold a town hall in Richfield tonight

http://www.sltrib.com/news/5276035-155/will-it-be-as-raucous-as

Richfield • Deep in Utah's Republican country, about 160 miles from Salt Lake City, GOP Rep. Chris Stewart met a crowd of 300 people who supported and defended him.

They cut him off midsentence only to applaud and cheer his statements. They clapped when he took the stage and when he left it. And they squashed opposition from the handful of detractors in the audience by yelling back — "Let him talk" and, "Who paid you to come?"

Stewart, wearing his signature cowboy boots, found himself right at home.

"This is where I feel most comfortable," he said.

The congressman spent 15 minutes at the beginning of his town hall Friday night championing his recent vote to repeal and replace Obamacare. He then answered seven questions — selected randomly from constituents who indicated that they wanted to speak — over 40 minutes, most coming from residents of rural Sevier County.

The sympathetic scene offered a stark contrast to the congressman's raucous town hall in Salt Lake City on March 31. At that event, 1,000 audience members, mostly Democrats and members of Utah's growing "resistance" movement, shouted at Stewart to "do your job" and repeatedly yelled over his answers. They booed as he addressed the GOP health care plan, and they demanded to know about possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump's administration.

Friday's crowd in central Utah asked less combative questions: How can Republicans remain united as a party? How can the federal government help local communities? How will the Trump administration bolster coal mining?

Stewart is a part of the House Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The congressman faced just one question related to that work. Tyrell Aagard, a Salt Lake City resident, asked the congressman whether he could "defend the firing" of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia. The president dismissed Comey on Tuesday.

The representative has avoided extended comment on the subject this week — only wishing the law enforcement head well — but he added Friday that Comey "lost the confidence of people on both sides of the aisle." Stewart also insisted, as he has before, that there is "no evidence" to show connection between Trump's campaign and foreign interests.

"If you're banking on that, you may be disappointed," he said.

He received support from most of the audience in that response. Terry Thompson, 77, of Monroe, supports Trump's decisions in office and wore a Make America Great Again T-shirt.

"Do I think Comey should've been fired?" Thompson said. "Hell yes."

Trump's account of the firing, though — that he was thinking about the probe related to Russia — diverged from White House officials' statements that the president acted on recommendations from the attorney general and deputy attorney general and based his decision on how Comey handled an investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

Stewart — whose sprawling 2nd Congressional District includes Salt Lake City and stretches from southern Davis County to St. George — is the first member of Utah's all-Republican delegation to hold a town hall after the House passed its health care bill last month.

The state's four representatives favored the Republican plan, the American Health Care Act, to overhaul Obamacare. Stewart voted for the new bill and has said it "will drive down costs [and] offer families more choices."

He said Friday, pointing to a slideshow, that people with pre-existing conditions would not be affected by the bill. The legislation, though, would allow states to seek waivers of a rule that requires insurers to offer the same rates to all Americans. That could mean high premiums and no guarantee of coverage for those who have illnesses or injuries.

Still, he said, "You can't be denied coverage under this plan."

When a vote was delayed on the bill on March 24, Stewart said it was "the most discouraged I've felt in Congress." He describes the House-passed legislation as fulfilling a promise he made to Utahns.

Arden Demille, 49, a Republican resident of Annabella, said Obamacare has cost his family $500 in premium costs each month.

"It doesn't save me anything," he said, adjusting his camouflage baseball hat. "I wish [Stewart] would get rid of it."

Republicans throughout the nation have faced tough questioning and many protesters at town halls.

But Stewart got nearly 90 percent of the vote in Sevier County in his most recent election (with 35 percent in Salt Lake County), easily lending him a friendly crowd in what he called an "eclectic" district.

His gathering Friday marks his second since Rep. Jason Chaffetz's hostile town hall in February. At Chaffetz's event, in which 1,000 people were allowed inside and 1,500 stood outside, barred from entering because of fire codes, the crowd demanded that the congressman "explain yourself."

After that, Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said the town hall was "violent" and unsafe; he warned representatives to skip live forums to avoid harassment — though police and Chaffetz did not make the same assessment. Evans also denounced the audience at Stewart's March event, saying it was "more disrespectful than anything."

Besides Chaffetz and Stewart, no other member of Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation has held an in-person town hall this year.

Joanne Slotnik, co-founder of the Salt Lake Indivisible "resistance" movement, drove three hours to Richfield on Friday to encourage Stewart to stop "being invisible" and stand up for what's right.

"I think our democracy is in a place of peril right now," she said.

Will Talbot, though, said Stewart is "doing a fantastic job." Talbot, a Piute County commissioner, grazes 2,000 sheep and 200 cows on land in southern Utah. He fears that the federal government will impede his operations, and commended the congressman for fighting back against designations like Bears Ears National Monument.

"On lands issues, he's been doing just what Utahns want," Talbot added, wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a bottle of Coca-Cola. A few in the audience, though, wore "Protect Bears Ears" T-shirts and had "Protect Wild Utah" stickers.

As the town hall ended, Stewart quickly slipped behind the blue curtains; the audience stood and clapped. One man from St. George stood alone at the front of the auditorium and shouted into a megaphone that he brought, "We deserve answers."

 

StewartEmily PhelpsUT