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A tale of two town halls: National issues dominated discussion at events held by two Central Coast lawmakers

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When U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) walked into his Feb. 22 town hall meeting in Arroyo Grande, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation.

The cheers from the crowd of about 400, many of whom stood along the walls and sat on the floor after all the available seats filled up, continued over the next two hours as Carbajal vowed to continue pushing back against much of President Donald Trump’s agenda, including efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, attempts to ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants, and calls to defund Planned Parenthood and dismantle the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency.

FULL HOUSE:  Large crowds of Central Coast residents turned out to town hall meetings held by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), who’s pictured, and state Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-SLO). - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FULL HOUSE: Large crowds of Central Coast residents turned out to town hall meetings held by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), who’s pictured, and state Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-SLO).

“It’s quite a challenging environment in Washington, as you know, but all I can do is work every day with every fiber of my being to make sure your voice is heard loud and clear in Washington,” Carbajal said, to the sound of more applause.

Just one day later, the mood was very different at a similar event hosted by 35th District State Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham. It got off to a rocky start when the crowd learned that the format wasn’t going to be a question-and-answer town hall. Instead, Cunningham had planned a casual gathering in which he’d work the room, engaging in small conversations about local and state issues.

The audience members, several of whom attended Carbajal’s event the night before, began stomping their feet and loudly chanting until Cunningham agreed to change the format of the meeting. The tone remained argumentative, as Cunningham fielded questions on many of the same issues that Carbajal addressed. At one point, Cunningham jokingly referred to California Gov. Jerry Brown as “Moonbeam,” and the crowed erupted, booing loudly for what wasn’t the last time that afternoon.

“Don’t you call him that,” someone in the crowd yelled out. “We like him.”

Cunningham tried to smooth things over.

“It wasn’t meant in a derogatory way,” he said.

While trying to find common ground with some of the members of the audience on immigration, Cunningham brought up a bill he’d submitted. It would require individuals convicted of forcing another person to have sex with them through the threat of deportation to register as sex offenders.

“It’s not enough,” another member of the audience shouted out.

While the tone of the events couldn’t have been more different, both Cunningham and Carbajal witnessed the continuing echo of the contentious 2016 presidential election. It appears to have mobilized the country’s left to demand that their elected officials push back on many of the policies put forward by the White House and the Republican Party, which has the majority of both houses of Congress.

Concerns over perceived threats to civil rights, health care, and education drove many Americans to town hall meetings across the country in recent weeks. In several cases, Republican lawmakers like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), all faced vocal and aggressive crowds at recent town hall meetings. The prospect of being grilled by audiences in their home states caused several GOP lawmakers to avoid in-person town hall meetings.

“People are pissed off,” said Atascadero resident Mary Galvan.

Galvan attended Cunningham’s Feb. 23 town hall. Like several others who came to the event, Galvan said she wanted to see her elected officials, including those at the state level, stand up to Trump’s agenda.

“What they are doing at federal level is going to be felt here,” Galvan said.

She also indicated that California lawmakers could pass laws to buffer the harmful impacts of some of that agenda.

During his town hall, Cunningham reminded attendees about the limits of his office, which has little to no say in federal legislation and policy.

“If you want me to go up and cast a bunch of protest against the federal government,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what you elected me to do.”

Many of the attendees at Carbajal’s town hall also called on him to fight Trump’s agenda. It was something Carbajal said he would work to do, noting that he co-sponsored a bill that calls for an independent investigation into the administration’s communications and ties to the Russian government. But despite getting a warmer reception from the crowd than Cunningham got the next day, Carbajal frequently reminded the crowd that the Republican Party was still in control of both Congress and the White House, and that any laws to reverse Trump’s agenda or investigate the president and his administration would need support from the other side of the aisle.

“What I hope is that there are people that are in Congress that are both Democrats and Republicans that put our country first before their party, and can find common ground on national security and what is in the best interest of the country,” Carbajal said.

But not everyone shared that view, including Lori Sexty. Sexty, a Santa Maria resident who said she proudly voted for Trump, came to see Carbajal even though she said his views were “anathema” to everything she stood for.

“He’s just here to put his useless vote in to block anything Trump is trying to do,” she said.

As she waited for the town hall to begin, Sexty said she was willing to hear Carbajal out. Less than 20 minutes later, one of the attendees stood up and asked Carbajal about impeaching President Trump. As the crowd cheered loudly, Sexty left the room.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

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