SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. — John Mathews, a self-described retired technology guru and life-long Republican from the coastal town of Del Mar, Calif., is a Darrell Issa voter.
But during a Saturday morning town hall here in an affluent Southern Californian neighborhood, Matthews lit into the nine-term Republican congressman for failing to do more to stop Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“I want to know when you and the Republican Party are going to stand up, use your political capital, and recognize that our democracy is under attack from an adversary,” he asked Issa.
The crowd cheered, and raised yellow signs reading “Agree.”
Issa — who just minutes earlier had boasted about being the first Republican to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation — retorted that Russia wasn’t a Republican problem at all. He argued it was a bipartisan nuisance, and claimed he’s been tough on what he called the “evil empire" of Russia his entire career.
As the audience jeered at Issa to “Stand up! Stand up!” against President Donald Trump, and “revoke" the security clearance of Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, Matthews said he would not vote for Issa again.
“I would prefer having a Republican representing this district,” he said. “However, if this is going to happen, he needs to step away from running for re-election and let another Republican run in his place, because quite honestly, he is unelectable.”
This Orange County area between Los Angeles and San Diego is supposed to an Issa stronghold. While he narrowly won re-election last fall, beating his Democratic challenger by fewer than 2,000 votes, much of Orange County backed him.
But anger from the left — and more than a little from his own party — has dogged Issa here in a Republican-leaning part of his increasingly Democratic district. Every seat in a nearly 500-person auditorium at the San Juan Hills High School was filled, and hundreds of constituents protested outside, irate that they couldn’t get in.
Protesters outside the building Saturday morning chanted and held colorful homemade signs that read “Repeal and replace Issa,” “healthcare for all,” and “Issa… try this for a change: country before party.” One attendee held a sign with a rubber chicken taped onto a picture of Issa’s face and plastered with the phrase “Missing in Action.”
“He’s telling us one thing and doing something different,” said Debbie Hanna of Encinitas, Calif., a registered Democrat who left her house early this morning so she’d be first in the wait-list line. “He told us Planned Parenthood would not be defunded then voted to defund it when he got to Washington. He proclaims that he has some kind of saving grace for health care for everybody … but then he voted for Trumpcare!”
This dynamic has left Issa, a nine-term incumbent, in an awkward spot. The former chairman of the House oversight committee made a name for himself in Washington as President Barack Obama’s chief inquisitor, grilling the Democratic administration on allegations of waste, abuse and corruption.
But now, seven months after Hillary Clinton won his district, Issa is showing a softer side. He’s boasted about working with Obama on legislation and hosting events with area Democrats. During the town hall, he sympathized with supporters calling for immigration reform, and he promised Congress wouldn’t make draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Institutes of Health.
For his part, Issa rejects the notion that his politics are changing — once calling the suggestion “bullshit.” In a brief interview after the town hall, he scoffed at the idea he was in trouble politically in a competitive district.
“Not a bit,” Issa quipped when asked how concerned he was about re-election. “I got more votes in the last election than I did in any previous election. But there was an 83 percent turnout." He added: "That’s not duplicatable in an off year. It’s not even normally duplicatable in a presidential year.”
Saturday’s town hall was carefully choreographed: Issa’s office emailed area constituents a registration code allowing them early registration for the limited-space event. Within a couple minutes of registration going live to the entire district, tickets were gone — angering hundreds who felt Issa was trying to surround himself with supporters.
“I think he has tried to stack the inside with favorable constituents,” said Denise Stillenger of Cardiff, one of hundreds of wait-listed constituents who showed up Saturday morning in hopes of getting in.
Issa’s spokesman Calvin Moore denied that Issa was trying to select his audience and said his office simply wanted to ensure people near San Juan Capistrano were able to get seats. In previous town halls, he said, locals were blocked from attending when angry protesters flooded the event.
In an apparent attempt to alleviate some of that criticism and connect with constituents who have picketed outside his office in recent weeks, Issa on Thursday held an impromptu “pop up” town hall in Vista.
Despite the short notice — the email only went out five hours before the event — about 200 people showed up to press Issa on everything from Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement to concerns about Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner allegedly trying to establish a “back channel” of communication with Russian officials
While the town hall Saturday appeared to be an even split between supporters and antagonizers, there were still plenty of challenging questions for Issa, including some about the House Republicans’ health care replacement.
Karen Abrams, a 53-year-old stage-three breast cancer survivor from Encinitas, Calif., criticized Issa for backing the plan and raised concerns about coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
"When I asked you this question before the vote … you eventually came around to saying, ‘Yes, people with pre-existing conditions should not have to pay [more],’" she said. "You use this world ‘should’ all the time. Yet you chose to vote opposite of your words. How can we trust you?”
Issa made no apology for his health care vote. Instead, he explained that in the current bill, people who maintain continuous coverage would not be charged more than a healthier person.
Red signs sprang up saying “Disagree.”
Issa did his best to identify himself as an independent-minded Republican. When Cindy Monahan, a retired businesswoman and registered Democrat, told him “we do not hear your voice” pushing back on the Russia scandal, Issa vowed to use his congressional perch to ensure special counsel Robert Mueller has “the freedoms and the funds” to investigate — and take the probe wherever it may lead him.
Likewise, when 30-year-old Oscar Gomez of Vista asked Issa about deportation raids “not just going after bad hombres” but innocent people, Issa boasted that he once “got booed by my own party” for wanting to tackle immigration reform.
“I appreciate the American dream as much as anyone does,” Issa said, later adding, “I’m tried of people being afraid when that’s not what America is about … I’m going to work with any Democrats, hand in hand.”
Highlighting the divide, many attendees had praise for Issa. While exiting the theater, Gene James, a registered Republican and Issa supporter from San Clemente, said he thinks Issa is “doing great.” He argued that many area Republicans still supported Issa but didn’t attend the town hall because they’re out golfing and enjoying the weekend.
But even James was concerned about Issa’s future. Indivisible, he said, is “the tea party of 2017,” and Orange County has changed — and not in Issa’s favor, he said.
“They’re organized, they’re angry,” he said of the Democratic protesters. “They’re a small percentage, but being a districts that’s in transition, that small percentage could definitely hurt him." He added, "Orange County isn’t what it once was.”