SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Rep. Steve Knight tried desperately to distinguish himself as a moderate Republican and counterpoint to an unpopular President Donald Trump during a 90-minute town hall here in sunny Santa Clarita.
But when it came to his recent vote to repeal Obamacare, the vulnerable Californian couldn’t escape the public grilling. He was regularly mocked, jeered and interrupted by a crowd that seemed unsatisfied with his answers.
“I am angry and disappointed that you voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, then replace it with garbage,” said one constituent in the front-row of a high school auditorium — the first of at least 10 health policy questions of the evening.
The crowd whooped.
And then green signs that read “agree” flew up in the air as the constituent hammered on: “I feel that your vote to repeal Obamacare was a vote for political capital with [Speaker Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) — not to help provide a good health care system for the citizens of this district. You represent the people of the 25th district of California; you do not represent the first district of Wisconsin!”
The comment came during Knight’s first public town hall since backing House Republican’s Obamacare replacement. Knight spent the entire evening warding off attacks from left-leaning constituents furious about his vote, fighting to maintain his composure during a sometimes tense give-and-take.
While many Republicans around the nation are shaking off angry liberal activists at public events— knowing that often such crowds comprise a small portion of their GOP districts — Knight doesn’t have that luxury: Democrats comprise about half Knight’s swing-district just north of Los Angeles, which re-elected him by six points last fall. He sits in one of more than half-dozen GOP seats in deeply Democratic California that went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
While one attendee praised Knight for that vote, most lit into him, like this:
“I am not some undeserving ne’er-do-well leaching off society in your district,” said one who railed about the so-called American Health Care Act (AHCA). “Neither is my husband and neither are the… constituents — Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, progressive, liberals, independents — whom your legislation, and your vote for it, slapped in the face!”
Knight, for his part, tried to empathize where he could. He blasted the president’s proposed cuts to education and Meals on Wheels. And he vowed to an upset woman, who said she had a schizophrenic son on Social Security disability insurance, that Congress would never, ever, cut that safety next — even if the White House is trying to.
But for the most part, all attendees wanted to talk about was the House’s health care bill.
After walking out on stage to a receptions of boos, Knight tried to talk up his legislative accomplishments. He said Congress in the first 100-some days of the year had passed more than 100 bills, though the crowd scoffed. And when the first questioner pressed him on “how you work with a pathological liar” — referring to Trump — Knight dodged.
“I think that everyone thinks that I sit around and watch the news … We keep our head down and we work,” Knight said, launching into a lecture about his duties as a sub-panel chairman on the House Small Business Committee and efforts to bring jobs to the district. “I do have a job to … represent the district, so that’s kind of what we do.”
Health care questions weren’t as easily avoided, however.
A woman whose son has a speech impediment asked Knight “why you would vote on a bill” that cuts Medicaid, which funds special education programs her son relies on.
Knight cut her off, eager to dispel the notion that his vote for AHCA would hurt her son.
“Your son will continue to be on Medicaid,” he said, apologizing for interrupting her. “That wouldn’t be changed under … AHCA.”
The House-passed bill would cut more than $800 billion from the federal health insurance program for low-income earners — something several constituents reminded Knight. But while Knight tried to move on to other questions, the Medicaid issue kept coming back at him.
“How could you justify, let alone support something that could ruin millions of lives?” said one high school student, referring to the bill’s Medicaid cuts. “Forty-two percent of Medicaid spending goes to people with disabilities… If you cut Medicaid, you will be reversing disability rights and stopping positive change. Congressman is that something you want to be known for?”
Knight gave a similarly vague response as he had to previous Medicaid inquiries, before calling for the next question: “Remember: Medicaid was that before. Medicaid was that in the ACA. And Medicaid is that in the AHCA. And it continues on.”
At times, the room, which was guarded by at least 15 police officers, grew testy.
When one man stood up to praise Knight for voting to repeal Obamacare, the crowd began jeering at the constituent, with one man standing up to yell, “Let the idiot speak!”
The audience similarly targeted a conservative woman who asked Knight to commit to voting to defund Planned Parenthood, which sent the crowd studded with hats, t-shirts and signs supporting the organization into a frenzy.
Knight seemed increasingly annoyed as the evening went on, imploring at one point: “Let’s have a little bit of decorum here?”
And after he was again interrupted mid-sentence halfway through the night, Knight paused his answer to lecture the crowd: “It is difficult: You lose your train of thought when somebody just yells at (you).”
Members of the crowd were unsympathetic: “Aww!” they mocked as if to say, “poor baby!” — some jutting out their bottom lips in a pretend pouty face.
Knight tried to sympathize with his more liberal constituents where he could. One area he found relief: bashing Trump’s budget.
After one student said he was concerned about the president’s cuts to education, Knight pulled out and started reading aloud Trump’s proposed reductions to teachers grants and after-school programs.
He panned them: “I don’t believe in those cuts. I don’t.”
When one mother, who said her son has schizophrenia, talked about his struggle to live a normal life, long-term hospitalizations and desperate need of Social Security disability insurance, Knight vowed that Trump’s proposed cuts to the program wouldn’t get through Congress.
“For the president’s budget: Understand there is going to be an appropriations process that goes through it, and that… Congress spends the money,” he said. “And I don’t see how we cut any of those programs going forward.”
In the end, however, that just might not save him from his AHCA vote.
“It’s very hard to be a Republican in California right now,” said David Goss, a 36-year-old Republican constituent who was wearing a “Stands with Steve Knight” shirt.
Health care is “all anybody cares about. They don’t look at all the other good stuff that Steve Knight has done. All they want to focus on is this one thing.”