Houston's 7th Congressional District is traditionally solid Republican. Represented by John Culberson since 2000, his bid for re-election in 2018 may prove to be his toughest race ever. I attended his town hall Saturday afternoon – I am a constituent - and this is what I saw.
Times have changed. The last town hall I attended for Congressman Culberson was filled with Republican voters. Some were not happy with votes he cast and aggressively questioned him – often loudly. Now, however, the opponents of Culberson far outnumbered his supporters. They were as loud and obnoxious as other town halls shown on television news reports.
The angry audience members booed when a prominent local conservative activist was introduced to lead the invocation but, fortunately, the Boy Scouts were not booed as they brought in the American and Texas flags. They did participate in reciting the Pledge of Alliance.
Rules for participation were announced as notice of the event was presented on social media and email lists. Photo identification with proof of address was the number one requirement. Only those actually living within Culberson’s district were allowed in. No noisemakers (bullhorns) were allowed. Some hand signs were allowed, even approved by the congressman – participants would wave a red ‘disagree’ sign or a green ‘agree’ sign as he answered questions.
These were passed out by those opposing Culberson as the very long line to get into the event waited outside to get in. Once in the outside door, staff checked identifications and handed out a paper for those wanting to ask a specific question. On the paper was a place for the person’s name. These were put into a large plastic container for a staffer to randomly pull.
The surprising element of this town hall was the level of participation Culberson employed with the audience. Held in a middle school’s auditorium, all 700 seats were filled. A stage rising above the audience level was not used – the Congressman stood on the ground level with the audience. He spoke with a hand microphone and moved about to ask questioners to rise and be acknowledged. He spoke directly to them and even handed over the mic for them to ask follow-up questions.
Rep. Culberson is best described as a happy warrior, an elected official who will remain pleasant and open to conversation no matter how rude or condescending the other person becomes toward him. His manner has not changed. The audience didn’t like most of his answers, as would be expected, but he forged on and often stopped to ask for respectful and civil dialogue when the shouting become deafening.
His challenger on the Democratic side, Debra Kerner, has already announced her candidacy and attended Saturday afternoon’s town hall. She even was allowed to ask a question of Rep. Culberson, as she informed everyone that she is running against him. How’s that for free publicity? She is well know among political activists and has raised money for candidates locally in both parties. She will be a formidable opponent in 2018.
All of the usual opposition groups from the left were represented and wearing their t-shirts for identification – Moms Demand Action, Planned Parenthood, POD Save America, and others - using town hall settings to protest the Republican agenda (mostly President Trump) within the Indivisibles network.
A small stuffed Big Bird even made an appearance when the standard question about cutting funding for PBS was asked. Outside, the protesters from these organizations not living in the district, or unable to get into the full capacity auditorium, were protesting by chanting – KKK references were a favorite – and using the bullhorns not allowed inside.
There was a larger security presence. All things considered, it was well organized and well run.
My take away from this event is that, if the room was any indication, the district is slowly shifting more liberal. They were against any travel ban or additional security checks, against the border wall and for open borders, against any cuts to any programs currently funded by the federal government – especially education or health care - and for amnesty for all illegal immigrants. It should be noted that the crowd approved when Culberson voiced support for opposing cuts to NIH and continuing funding for PBS for the near future.
Democrats see a time when they will be able to win more elections in Harris County. They are very well organized and motivated. Republican leadership should have organized a counter-protest outside and organized Republicans to fill seats in the auditorium. Instead, the opposition won this round.