GOOCHLAND, Va. — Freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) went to the conservative heart of her district Tuesday night for her first town hall, where she broke with many of her constituents on immigration but thanked them for avoiding the vitriol that often dominates today’s hyperpartisan politics.
The room at a recreation center in rural Goochland County 30 miles outside of Richmond was full of tea-party-style Republicans, some of whom said they did not vote for Spanberger but still came to hear her out.
Three out of 10 questions focused on immigration, less than a week after Congress approved a border security deal to avoid a second partial government shutdown and President Trump declared a national emergency to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Stan Corn of Goochland, the county seat, wanted to know why Spanberger didn’t support the $5.7 billion in funding that Trump wanted for the wall.
Spanberger replied that she had voted for a bill that included funding for border infrastructure, technology at ports of entry and more security personnel at the border.
Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent, Dave Brat, in November, turning the district blue for the first time in nearly half a century. Her campaign capitalized on Democrats’ discontent with Trump without alienating moderate Republicans.
While Brat angered constituents and activists by refusing to hold town halls and complaining that women “were in my grill,” Spanberger was even-tempered Tuesday evening — and so was her audience.
“Given the run-up to where we are now, how lucky do you feel that you can have a nice, peaceful, civil town hall with people who disagree with you?” asked Jeff Atkinson, a Brat supporter from western Henrico County who said Democratic activists have acted out at similar events.
Spanberger answered, “Very,” and added, “I know there’s quite a few people in the room who didn’t vote for me, and I thank you very sincerely for being here.”
In an interview, Atkinson said he would “reserve judgment” on Spanberger’s performance in Congress, but he was not satisfied with her answers on immigration questions.
Goochland is a solidly Republican county, population about 22,000, where Trump won 60 percent of the vote. Spanberger lost in this part of her district but captured enough support in nearby Chesterfield County and Henrico, her home county, to win the 7th District with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Spanberger met with Trump during the 35-day partial shutdown as a member of the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. She told her audience Tuesday night that the president assured her that he did not support “a concrete barrier wall ocean to ocean,” which she also opposes.
Asked by Delbert Horn of Goochland about sanctuary cities, Spanberger said she worried about local jurisdictions enforcing federal immigration law without the necessary training and certification.
“I don’t support sanctuary cities,” she said. “I don’t support safe havens for criminals. But I do also support ensuring that jurisdiction is upheld.”
At the end of the town hall, a third resident asked Spanberger if the federal government should withhold funding from sanctuary cities. About half the audience applauded for the question, which she did not answer directly.
In a phone interview after the town hall, Spanberger said she would not “talk in simplistic platitudes” about the complicated issue of immigration.
“Talking about the quote-unquote sanctuary cities, or not — it’s a campaign slogan a lot of people get caught up in,” she said. “And I think it degrades the value of the conversation if we’re not actually talking about what the real concern is.”
Another question focused on late-term abortion, an issue that was in the news last month after a Democratic state lawmaker and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) bungled questions about legislation that would have made it easier for women whose health was at risk to terminate a third-trimester pregnancy.
Days after that controversy, the Democratic establishment called for Northam’s resignation after revelations that his medical school yearbook page included a racist photo and his subsequent acknowledgment that he had worn blackface.
“Virginia has received pretty bad publicity lately,” Charlotte Whitmire of Goochland said, before asking Spanberger whether she supported the late-term abortion bill sponsored by Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax).
Spanberger, who has three children, said that when a woman is told her pregnancy could threaten her life, lawmakers shouldn’t play a role in those “heartbreaking and, to me, truly incomprehensible scenarios and conversations.”
“I don’t see the need, frankly for the bill that Kathy Tran was pushing,” she said. “There are already legal parameters that [a woman] facing those sorts of circumstances can have hard conversations with her physician about the right steps forward.”
Jonathan Lyle, who sits on the Goochland Soil and Water Conservation District, asked about the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal by fellow freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero over 10 years and guarantee jobs for all.
Spanberger called the plan a “bold compilation of ideas meant to address global climate change” but said it includes unrelated policy objectives and doesn’t prescribe specific solutions for problems it outlines.
“Overall, I am not a supporter of the Green New Deal,” she said.
Spanberger, one of eight female members spoofed earlier this month on “Saturday Night Live,” has emerged as one of the more- high-profile members of the freshman class in Congress.
One of 15 Democrats who did not vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to become House speaker, she nevertheless landed seats she wanted on the Foreign Affairs and Agriculture committees. She chairs the Agriculture subcommittee on conservation and forestry.