BLACKSTONE, Va. — Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who drew national notice after complaining that women were “in my grill” because he was reluctant to hold a town hall meeting, finally relented and came face to face with those women — and plenty others — at a raucous public event Tuesday night.
Brat held the meeting in a tiny town in Nottoway County, a rural community carried by Trump in November. It’s about an hour south of where most in Brat’s district live, but that didn’t stop a stream of people from driving into town and filling up the town hall, with hundreds shut out on the sidewalk.
For a little more than an hour, Brat was heckled nonstop as he fielded questions on health care, President Trump’s policies and the border wall.
His answers seemed to antagonize most in the crowd of 150, who yelled back at him, at points drowning him out and prompting a few of his supporters to leave early in disgust.
Some of the loudest jeers came over Republicans’ promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act as people held up red cards signaling their discontent.
“The problem is Obamacare has just collapsed,” said Brat, who stood at a podium in the Blackstone Herb Cottage, a restaurant and event space. The crowd shouted in response, “No, it has not!”
The town hall came after constituents, many of them organizing online, made daily calls and sent repeated emails to Brat’s office to demand a public meeting.
Participants began to line up along Main Street hours before the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. Many held signs referring to Brat’s recent gaffe, including one that read “VA 7th district, it’s grilling time!”
Another sign said, “This grandmother drove 165 miles to be in your grill, Mr. Brat and no one paid me to be here!” — a nod to a comment Brat made to a Richmond paper in which he dismissed protesters as “paid activists.”
Several people sported stickers on their clothes bearing their zip codes, to demonstrate they lived in Brat’s congressional district.
As he ticked off the names of the counties he has visited in the district, a few in the crowd yelled “Arizona,” a jab at his plans to attend a town hall meeting with Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) in Gold Canyon, Ariz., on Thursday. Brat had accepted that invitation before agreeing to hold a town hall in Virginia, a move that enraged some of his critics.
Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn acted as an emcee, reading written questions collected from the crowd. Asked “Do you deny climate change?” Brat said “No, the climate changes all the time.” His apparent attempt at levity angered the crowd, prompting some to yell “Answer the question!”
On four separate occasions, Brat awkwardly plugged his book “American Underdog,” which details his election to Congress and his fiscal and conservative principles, saying it’s an effective sleep aid. The joke fell flat each time.
Asked how as a fiscal conservative Brat could justify the cost of the wall along the southern border promised by Trump — estimated to cost between $15 billion and $25 billion — Brat said, “The answer is ‘easily.’ ”
“Then you pay for it!” a woman in the audience shot back.
He also gave an unpopular answer when asked if he agreed with Trump that the administration was running smoothly so far.
“The answer to that is, given the obstruction in D.C., it’s remarkable what he has gotten done,” he said. The crowd drowned out his answer forcing him to struggle for a moment — “The stock market is going like ‘zing!’ for the first time” — before moving on to a question about the Second Amendment.
Mary Mullins, a 61-year-old constituent and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who lives in Chesterfield, stood up and briefly held the floor, demanding that Brat give direct answers.
She prodded him to add some detail to one of his usual lines about his value system. “Some actual principles please, not this Judeo-Christian generality,” she said.
Nicole Subryan, 44, a registered nurse from Petersburg, which is not in Brat’s district, kept up a loud running commentary through the town hall and held up a sheet of paper with the word, “LIE.”
She and others seemed unimpressed with Brat’s recitation of his grass-roots credentials, which helped him topple House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. Cantor was criticized for being aloof and out of touch with his constituents — many of the same accusations now plaguing Brat.
“I was one of the first to run as an outsider against the establishment and the crony deals on Wall Street. I think we’re going to drain the swamp,” he said, invoking one of Trump’s favorite lines. The comment sent the crowd into an uproar once again.
“I want to get the power out of D.C. and Wall Street and back to Main Street,” Brat said. To which a man yelled, “Wall Street’s in the Cabinet now.”
“Are the words yes and no in your vocabulary?” Subryan yelled. Then she added, “You’re full of s---!”
Another constant heckler was Alyssa Mitchell, 21, a college student from Richmond, which is not in Brat’s district. At one point she yelled: “How about Trump! Why doesn’t he pay his taxes?”
Again and again she shouted: “You’re misinformed!”
Brat, who seemed a little startled at the beginning of the evening, said afterward that he didn’t mind the constant jeering and that he understood the country’s divisions have deepened since the election.
“I thought it was going to be worse,” he said.