BLACKSTONE, Va. — Main Street had some new fixtures Tuesday alongside the quiet antique stores, the sturdy masonry, the bright gas stations, the Baptist churches.
There was the Clinton supporter who had breast surgery six weeks ago and drove an hour and 25 minutes, during rush hour, to be heard. There was the Trump supporter who stuck around despite the cane in his hand and the cancer in his body. There were the teenagers wearing Planned Parenthood shirts, the Republicans who are aghast at the 45th president, and the mothers carrying signs that say “Women for Dave Brat,” the Virginia Republican who was scheduled for a town hall at 7 p.m. in this placid town of 3,500, a few hours — and a world away — from Washington.
Kimberly Wyman was first in line, eight hours early. She wore a black T-shirt with pink letters declaring: “A woman’s place is in the revolution.” She represented many of the people who would queue up behind her on Blackstone’s Main Street: newly involved in politics, hostile to both President Trump and any Republican who supports him, and propelled to action by loose online organizing — such as local “huddles” birthed by January’s women’s march, action plans propagated by the “Indivisible” grass-roots movement and outgrowths of the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation (like Together We Will).
“If you live in a small town, you think no one’s going to come and join you — and people do,” said Wyman, 41, who deals antiques in Spotsylvania County. Her home is at the northern end of Rep. David A. Brat’s sprawling 7th District, which begins near Culpeper and skirts Richmond on the way to its southern terminus here in Blackstone, 45 minutes from the North Carolina border in Nottoway County.
“This is a female-driven movement,” said Alsuin Preis, 44, an Irish woman who became a U.S. citizen in August and lives in Richmond. “These are female concerns. We were shocked, stunned and horrified that the nerdy, informed woman was pushed aside for the infantile man-boy.”
Congress is off this week, which means its constituents are on. During visits to their home districts this month, lawmakers have hosted dozens of town halls — and felt the wrath of liberals (and of some conservatives) who are terrified of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and swift executive actions.
Not all elected officials have scheduled town halls, but those who have are enduring protests, sharp rebukes and emotional questions about what they see as a sharp turn in governance as well as the House and Senate’s willingness to check the White House.
This town hall in southern Virginia attracted both supporters and detractors of Trump and Brat. Everyone interviewed for this story said they were a constituent of the 7th except one Brat supporter from Hanover County, which was redistricted to Rep. Rob Wittman (R) last month. Some had heard about the town hall via Brat’s Facebook page. Some had heard through online activism groups, and some had been hounding Brat’s office for a Richmond event and had to settle for Blackstone. The only visible organized effort on the scene was a volunteer who handed out pro-Brat posters to empty-handed supporters in line.
The scene in Blackstone on Tuesday featured an America that’s peaceful but pleading to be heard, that promises not to relent. Many of Brat’s constituents traveled more than an hour to engage and pressure him. Some were there to show Brat support, and to remind their fellow Americans that they knew who Trump was when they voted for him and continue to support him now.
By 5:50 p.m., about 130 people lined Main Street outside Blackstone Herb Cottage, a restaurant with 150 chairs. No. 20 in line was Chesterfield resident Sandy Pettengill, who had heard there would be agitators and wanted to support Brat, a star of the tea party who took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.
“After Obama’s election you didn’t see us out in the streets,” said Pettengill, who was born in the District, retired from corporate banking, supports strict voter ID laws and considers Hillary Clinton a traitor.
A couple of spots in front of Pettengill was Daphne Cole, a retired teacher who voted for libertarian Gary Johnson because she found Clinton’s Benghazi testimony disqualifying (specifically her line “What difference, at this point, does it make?”). “We don’t have much time left,” said Cole, 63, a longtime Blackstone resident who planned to press Brat on climate issues. “I’m going to advocate strongly [for the environment] until I die.”
Redistricting brought Blackstone into Brat’s care just last month. He pledged to hold his first town hall this year among his newest constituents, though his critics say Blackstone was a more cynical calculation; it is friendly territory (its county went 55 percent for Trump) and a hassle for a lot of folks to get to from the less sympathetic suburbs of Richmond, especially on a weeknight.
“Basically this guy says women are in his grill, and I wanted to be in his grill,” said retired nurse practitioner Judy Howell, 68, who drove the 90 minutes from Richmond. “I hope [Brat] gets an earful to make him realize that not everyone is gung-ho for Trump.”
Brat, like other Republicans in Congress, has become a stand-in for the president. Rep. Jim Jordan was hounded by hecklers Monday at a town hall in Marion, Ohio. On Feb. 9, Rep. Jason Chaffetz could barely get a word in at a raucous town hall in a suburb of Salt Lake City. Blackstone, with a quaint commercial strip that looks imported from a Hollywood back lot, seemed on Tuesday like the latest setting for “America: The Movie,” complete with peaceful assembly, wholesome setting and wry indignation at the suggestion that protests were an artificial spectacle financed by special interests.
“I had to look up George Soros. I didn’t know who he was. I don’t travel in his circles,” said Karen Peters, 49, a stay-at-home mom in Midlothian who voted for Brat in 2014 but now views him (and Trump) as dangerous.
Blackstone, which has only 10 officers in its police department, was prepared for 1,000 people. It looked like somewhere near 300 showed up.
“This is what I like to see,” said Blackstone Mayor Billy Coleburn, a “proud independent,” as he stood in the middle of Main Street near twilight. “Passion about government’s a good thing, isn’t it? I’ve been mayor for 10 years and I can maybe get a crowd of 50. He’s our congressman for a month and he gets hundreds.”
Blackstone’s history is that of small-town America: a crossroads settlement established in 1888 and nourished by tobacco and rail, made prosperous by the textile and furniture industries and then gutted by brain drain and the movement of manufacturing abroad. Many residents now commute to Richmond for work. A town hall meeting hosted by a congressman is a big deal for such a quiet town.
“Nothing really happens here,” said Amanda Key, a manager at the Brew House on Main Street. “There’s nothing to do. Everybody knows you. We’re just — here.” She didn’t vote in November but supports Trump because it “seems like he’s going to do more for us.”
Good news arrived last February: nearby Fort Pickett, a Virginia National Guard base, will be the home of a new State Department training facility for embassy security, which could bring up to 10,000 trainees through Blackstone every year, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“They need to bring back the jobs and stop the jobs from leaving,” said Darrell Webb, 61, an owner of an upholstery business whose family has been in Blackstone for generations. He likes Brat and Trump, and he hopes their fulfillment of campaign promises extends to the local economy. “It’s little towns like this that really need the help. . . . The Walmart stores come in and everything you buy is from overseas and none of it is any good.”
Brat arrived on Main Street around 6:30 p.m. and worked his way up the line, starting from the back. He shook hands. He hugged. He answered or deflected question after question on the Affordable Care Act, which he wants to repeal. Richmond resident Alice Dixon, a 56-year-old retired teacher who calls herself a Reagan Republican, trailed Brat down the line, repeating an incantation: “What about Russia? What about Russia? What about Russia?”
Those who couldn’t fit inside the restaurant massed outside against its big glass windows, in Brat’s line of sight. They listened to Brat’s comments through an outdoor speaker, and they shouted at him through the glass. A staffer collected written questions and brought them inside, where Coleburn read some of them aloud. The crowd was agitated inside and boisterous outside.
“They’re booing so they can’t even hear them,” muttered a Brat supporter in a neon-yellow hoodie after Brat addressed a question about the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We could hear him if he had a larger venue,” snapped a woman in a puffy winter jacket.
When Brat invoked Judeo-Christian values as the foundation of modern law, a group of three Brat supporters applauded from the opposite sidewalk — then refused to chat with a Washington Post reporter because they believed he wouldn’t report the truth.
The town hall went just a few minutes past the scheduled end time of 8 p.m. Before the last question, Brat tried to lighten the mood by asking, “Anybody got a good joke?”
“You!” attendees yelled outside.
After the event, Brat posed for pictures and answered questions for another hour. Then he left via the restaurant’s back door, emerged in the alley and pointed to a Blackstone police officer. “Thank you, man,” Brat said. “I’m alive! No tomatoes.” The congressman ducked into the passenger seat of a silver Lexus with a “Don’t Tread on Me” license plate. His route out of town, and out of trouble, was the same way into it: Main Street.