PACE, Fla. — A conservative congressman from northern Florida called on President Trump to release his tax returns at a town hall meeting here Thursday, reflecting the growing pressure on Republican lawmakers this week to assuage angry constituents.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) faced at least 500 constituents in a crowded bowling alley for nearly two hours Thursday evening in this quiet suburb of Pensacola, where he was grilled about his relationship with Trump, his stance on repealing the Affordable Care Act and his proposal to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
Gaetz, winding up a 14-hour listening tour of his home district, also promised that Congress would not repeal the Affordable Care Act without protecting its provision requiring coverage for preexisting conditions.
“No bill will be before the United States Congress that allows people to be discriminated against as a consequence of preexisting conditions,” Gaetz said.
“But, make no mistake,” he added. “Obamacare is a threat to our economy, a threat to our health care, and, as your congressman, I will work everyday to repeal it.”
Gaetz is an unlikely congressman to push for Trump to release his tax returns; he also ended Thursday’s town hall by shouting “Make America Great Again” over roaring opposition from the audience.
The 34-year-old freshman and former state legislator announced his candidacy for Congress last March, when he promised that Trump would “turn that town on its head and hit the restart button,” according to WFSU. He was elected in his safely Republican district with 69 percent of the vote.
Gaetz, who arrived to the town hall 30 minutes late, took questions on a wide range of topics during an event that was often tense but peaceful, with crowds booing the congressman and waving signs.
The congressman had been prepared to be shouted down by a hostile crowd; according to CNN, his staff had created several placards that could be hoisted in the event that the audience became too loud for him to be heard. The posters contained such messages as “professional liberal protesters.”
Donna Waters, a Pensacola attorney and registered Republican, was one of several to press Gaetz about his relationship with Trump.
“There are allegations that a hostile foreign country is committing acts of undeclared war by infiltrating the highest levels of our government,” Waters said. “That offends me. I don’t know if it offends my party, but it offends me. You are on the Judiciary Committee. You have said that they are going to investigate the Russian allegations. . . . Will you call for the release of President Trump’s income tax records?”
Gaetz responded by saying he “absolutely” believed Trump should release his returns. Answering a separate question, he stopped short of calling for a special committee or independent commission to investigate allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election, as another audience member suggested.
Gaetz also fielded numerous questions about the Affordable Care Act.
Jennifer Zimmerman, a local pediatrician, urged the congressman to leave the legislation intact. Zimmerman said that almost 90 percent of her patients qualify for Medicaid, and she noted that her husband and daughter had both suffered preexisting conditions that had limited their access to health coverage before the law’s passage.
“If not for the policies of the ACA, I don’t think any of my family members would be here,” Waters told Gaetz. In response, the congressman told her that he would work to ensure those with preexisting conditions were protected.
Thursday night’s town hall was the final event in Gaetz’s all-day tour of Santa Rosa County that also included visits to business groups, a nursing home and a local middle school, where Gaetz delivered a civics lesson to a group of seventh graders.
The congressman emphasized the importance of free speech, political protest and a vigorous and oppositional press to a functioning democracy. In discussing the Bill of Rights, he lingered on the 10th Amendment.
“The magic of American government is that we are suspicious of power,” Gaetz told the students. “We want it for the people, not just the folks who are elected.”
He returned to this point again when a student asked what would become of the EPA’s roughly 15,000 employees should the agency be abolished, as Gaetz has proposed.
“There are a lot of people who work at the EPA now who would not have their jobs,” Gaetz said, though he added that he expected some of those employees to be hired by state and local agencies.
“We believe in a clean environment,” Gaetz said. “The question is, under the 10th Amendment principles I believe in, who is best positioned to do that?”
At midday Thursday, Gaetz also hosted a town hall at a nearby barbecue joint, where he was greeted by a crowd of several hundred, many of whom hoisted signs in opposition to the EPA proposal.
The local Democratic Women’s Club had earlier announced plans to protest at the event, prompting a response from Gaetz’s supporters and the local chapter of Bikers for Trump. “I need all patriots in attendance to protect Congressman Gaetz from any potential disruption of his speech,” supporter Geoff Ross wrote on Facebook prior to the event. “Concealed carry permit holders most welcome — don’t forget your ammo.”
Ross’s comments quickly prompted calls for Gaetz to distance himself from the group. He did the opposite, calling the bikers “friends” on social media and welcoming them to the event.
“We understand not everyone agrees on every political issue, thus dissent, discord and protests are expected,” Gaetz’s office said in a news release Wednesday. “We believe dissent and protests are signs of a healthy democracy, but most of all we ask everyone attending to behave in a non-violent and non-disruptive manner.”
Gaetz’s office had declared that attendees would need to present identification to attend the event, citing concerns about crowd size. The room where the event was held, at Grover T’s BBQ, could accommodate only 80 of the several hundred people who showed up. Those remaining, mostly protesters, crowded outside while Gaetz fielded questions.
Carri Brown, who lives in nearby Pensacola, did not arrive early enough to make it inside. A retired public utility employee, she came to the event hoping to urge Gaetz to reconsider his bid to do away with the EPA.
Brown lives in Wedgewood, a low-income, historically black neighborhood where residents have waged a decades-long battle against the encroachment of landfills and borrow pits. Residents have complained to local and state officials for years that the pits jeopardized their safety, health and quality of life, to no avail.
“We are surrounded by pits,” Brown said Thursday. “It’s almost like we are in a bowl.”
Brown took a dim view of Gaetz’s assertion that state and local governments are best positioned to protect the environment.
“It’s a farce,” she said.