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Packed house but few fireworks in Meadows town hall

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows makes a point during a town hall at BRCC. U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows makes a point during a town hall at BRCC.

Protesters held competing signs that said "Thank you Mark" and "Build Bridges Not Walls" outside Thomas Auditorium at Blue Ridge Community College Monday afternoon in the leadup to the first town hall U.S. Mark Meadows has held in the Trump era.

Inside, constituents issued competing cheers and boos and the occasional jeers and derisive laughter but in the end the 90-minute Q&A lacked the kind of anger and fireworks that have ended with a congressman fleeing his constituents. NBC News sent a crew to cover the event but it seemed clear that the event failed to produce the kind of optics that the Huffington Post might gleefully post.

Security was tight, as promised, but the process went smoothly because Sheriff Charlie McDonald flooded the zone with plainclothes and uniformed personnel. Deputies shined flashlights in purses and used security wands to scan the constituents who began lining up for admittance more than two hours before showtime. At 6 p.m. the auditorium, which holds 482 people, was full. Only small signs were allowed.

Sheriff McDonald, a longtime Meadows ally, was the first to speak, at 6:06, giving the ground rules for the question-and-answer: Remain seated, keep aisles clear, observe decorum, respect the questioner.

"Safety's the main concern," McDonald said. "Bottom line, we want you to be able go home having felt like it was a good time and certainly well worth your time being here. From what I've seen so far I'm very encouraged. Please make sure that you respect whoever's speaking."

The lines were drawn from the start when Meadows mentioned that some constituents want Medicare for all — causing a big cheer to erupt — and that some want to repeal and replace Obamacare — provoking another roughly equal outbreak of applause, whistles and cheers.

In opening remarks, Meadows mentioned work he'd like to continue on health care, tax reform, military veterans and immigration. Wearing a charcoal gray suit, white dress shirt and light blue tie, the always well-coifed former developer was earnest and patient as he volleyed questions from an audience that was decidedly more hostile than most he's faced in his five years in office.

One constituent asked whether there would be a chance for followups from questioners.

"As a general rule we can't have an ongoing conversation back and forth between 400 people," Meadows said.

Questions started at 6:17 p.m.

The first one was, "What kind of insurance plan do you have now?" with a followup: "If Congress repeals Obamacare, what kind of insurance will you have?"

The premium for a policy that covers his wife and himself, Meadows said, is a little over $1,000 a month with a $7,500 deductible.

"Actually part of what we were looking to do was fix the Affordable Care Act," he said. "What will get my vote is something that will lower premiums and allow those with pre-existing conditions to be taken care of."

A newer idea is a block-grant proposal advanced by U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham. "For North Carolina," Meadows said, "the block grant would increase the amount that goes to Medicaid because we are not an expansion state."

"Why not?" shouted a vocal and persistent audience member who flouted his anti-Meadows feelings throughout the evening.

A moment later, McDonald intervened to ask for calm. "Please let him finish his answer," he said.

Health care questions dominated the night.

Meadows stressed that he had "made a pledge over and over to not support anything that doesn't lower premiums and cover pre-existing conditions."

Answering a question about the Freedom Caucus, Meadows mentioned that he chairs the Tea Party-oriented faction, setting off a new round of boos and cheers.

More questions

What is your stance on term limits and a constitutional convention of the states?

He's sponsored a bill on term limits. "There is not really the support on either side for term limits," he said. A convention of the states is something he's changed his mind on, now tilting in favor of because "Congress can't get things done."

What do tax cuts have to do with health care (the health care bill passed by the House lowered taxes on the rich)?

"The tax component was tied in with the Affordable Care Act when it passed... If you repeal those taxes it allowed for a much more aggressive tax cut for the middle class," he said.

Will you work with Democrats to reform health care?

"The real discouraging part when we started in on this, Chuck Schumer said he wasn't going to help anyone," he said. "I went to five of my Democrat colleagues" and asked for their input and some got in the House bill that passed. He spoke with one Democrat, Elijah Cummings, about prescription drugs.

Is there any hope that we will get a decent health care plan this year?

"We don't want a bill in Washington, D.C., that's going to create a crisis for anyone. ...  For me, I find a free market approach has the best ways to reduce cost. ... If we don't have a bill in September I think it's probably not going to happen."

Every modern nation has health care for all. Why do you believe Americans don't deserve health care or that we're not capable of achieving it?

By choosing a government plan over the free market "you're making a fundamental decision that typically has not proved out."

What have you done to help the economy in the district?

He has worked with state Commerce Department "to make sure we are ready and open and willing for business. ... I've met personally with a number of CEOs who have come to try to make a decision to locate in Western North Carolina." He's worked "to make sure we have a good infrastructure that actually supports that."

What is your rational for supporting gun laws that police officers oppose?

Meadows said he knows of no bill he's supported that police oppose. "If you want someone who doesn't support the Second Amendment you probably want a different member of Congress because I'm not going to yield on that."

Will you vote to raise the debt ceiling?

"One of the things we're really trying to tackle is not to support a debt ceiling bill that is not accompanied by some kind of spending cut or reform that would bend that curve down where we start to spend more responsibly."

What's your position on cutting corporate taxes and closing tax loopholes?

"Everybody's for closing tax loophole until it comes to their tax loopholes, I've found," he said.

Do you support a federal law or state law to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns? (Provoking cheers from Trump opponents)

"I can tell you're not going to like the answer. I'm not in favor of that."

Although you have a national platform now, WNC has unique issues. What are the priority issues for our region that must be addressed?

Jobs, immigration and veterans. "Jobs, No. 1. There are some counties that are doing very well and there are many that are not." Immigration is important, especially to farmers in need of labor. "We've got to address that. Any immigration reform that we do has to start with secure borders. It allows for us deal with the situation on a region by region basis" and to deal with guest workers. Case of veterans is another priority.

How much would you allocate to build the wall?

 "I do believe that our immigration policy, whether you're a conservative or a liberal, has to start with a secure set of borders so i believe we have to build a wall." Parts of it will be a wall, parts a virtual fence.

Meadows thanked the audience for being respectful.

"This kind of discourse and even disagreement and lets the Third World countries know that America is different," he said.




Constituents attending U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows’ town hall tonight will see national media, heightened security and restrictions on the size of signs in the Thomas Auditorium at Blue Ridge Community College.
“Mark promised a town hall every year and that’s what we’re doing,” said Wayne King, Meadows’ deputy chief of staff and district director. “We hope folks will be respectful and allow people to get their questions answered. We hope the good Southern nature of people in this community will come out.”
Organizers of the county’s most active President Trump resistance group, Progressive Organized Women, have been promoting the town hall and will stage a protest before it starts.
“Oh gosh, yes,” organizer Jayne Jennings said when asked whether her group planned to attend. “We hope to have a large turnout. We’ve been promoting it widely within our own group. We plan to show up early to protest and then go into the town hall. We’re the largest progressive group in Western North Carolina.”
The first town hall since Trump was inaugurated, investigations into various facets of his campaign and administration were announced and Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare could feature less friendly questions than Meadows has seen in the past in Republican-dominant Henderson County. Meadows comes home to the 11th District higher ranking than he's ever been and with a national profile. As head of the Freedom Caucus, the powerful conservative faction in the House, Meadows has been a key figure on health care, tax reform and other legislation and is often interviewed on cable news shows.
“I think right now health care” will be the dominant topic, Jennings said. “It’s huge on everybody’s mind. We want to make sure everybody understands that Mark Meadows is not as loved in this district as everyone thinks. All the media he gets says that everyone in the district loves him and supports him and that’s just not really true.”
She expects protesters to congregate around 3:30 so they can go through security and get into the town hall starting at 4:30. The town hall starts at 6 p.m.
People will see airport like security checks and a stronger than usual presence of law officers.
“It’s all about the safety of the people attending,” said Maj. Frank Stout, who joined a command staff briefing about the town hall Monday morning.
Signs inside will be limited to 8½x11 inches on paper and can't be attached to a stick.
“If someone stands up with a large sign it would block multiple people and prevent them from seeing or asking their question,” Stout said. He declined to say how many deputies the sheriff planned to deploy. The sheriff’s office typically covers Meadows events with several deputies but the raucous nature of some other congressional town halls has triggered a considerable uptick in the security.
“The sheriff has been working with us to make sure that the people that come there are safe,” King said. “They’re some of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. We’re happy to have them assist us for sure.”
The town hall format will be the same as it has been in the past, King said. Meadows will open with a few remarks. The staff will collect written questions and Meadows will answer as many as he can get to.

“He will kind of kick it off and hopefully some of those questions will be answered during that portion of it,” King said. “We’re not going answer the same question 20 times. But people will have the opportunity to write their questions as we have in the past and we can follow up with them as well.” As he has in the past, too, Meadows will promise "a written response from our office” if he can't address it on the spot.

Joshua Denton, a Henderson County Democratic Party spokesman, said the party has not planned a protest but has urged Democrats to come out. An email blast said “Let’s fill the auditorium before the other team gets there.”
“I know a lot are planning to attend,” he said. He predicted that the third third-term Republican would get questions about health care, tax reform and the ongoing special counsel investigation of Trump and the 2016 campaign.