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Pete Sessions Faces Raucous Crowd At Richardson Town Hall

The Republican leadership in Congress will spend next week hammering out details in their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. Some of that will happen in the committee chaired by Pete Sessions.

The Dallas Republican went home to his district Saturday, taking questions from nearly 2,000 constituents in a raucous and contentious town hall — a scene that’s become common as progressives organize against President Trump’s agenda and that of Congressional Republicans.

If Pete Sessions wanted a sense of his constituents’ mood, he just had to read the signs outside of the Richardson high school auditorium. There were the conservatives, like John Banner.

“I want our government out of the healthcare business,” Banner said, “so that’s why I’m carrying a sign. Repeal. It needs to repeal and replace sometime later. But it needs to be market-oriented. It doesn’t need to be government-controlled, government-taxed.”  

Then there were progressives, like Dolores Serroka.

“Paul Ryan has a specific agenda and he’s out to destroy Medicare and Medicaid,” she said. “And there’s absolutely nothing that can’t be fixed in Obamacare.”

Inside the auditorium, Sessions told the audience he hoped they could all be polite, even if they disagree. But many in the crowd weren’t there for that.

Over the course of two hours, as Sessions struggled to answer a range of questions, they erupted in boos and cheers. They chanted “Do your job” and “Vote him out” and, when the audience sensed he wasn’t being straight, they drowned him out with chanted demands of “tell the truth” or answer “yes or no.”

At one point, he stopped and told the crowd, “You know what, I understand why you’re so frustrated. You don’t know how to listen.”

That brought loud boos.

Sessions heads the powerful Rules Committee in the House, which means he’ll be a key player when Congress takes up the Republican healthcare bill later in the week. He said Obamacare underperformed and cost too much.

“The way they did healthcare was actually detrimental to job growth and job creation,” he said to boos.

The Republican plan would keep many of the elements people like from Obamacare, he said. It would also cut taxes on wealthy Americans. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said 24 million more people would be uninsured under the plan.

Sessions insisted it’ll give people the opportunity -- but not a mandate – to get buy health insurance.

One woman shouted “Opportunity isn’t care.” The crowd chanted “This plan sucks.”

This back and forth played on for more than two hours. He took questions ranging from immigration and the border wall to President Trump’s possible ties to Russia and the budget proposal he released last week. A question about Trump’s tax returns brought huge applause.

Sessions’ district includes North Dallas neighborhoods and posh suburbs. It’s long been safe Republican territory. For two decades, Sessions has faced down Tea Party primary challengers and Democrats. But last fall, when Sessions handily won re-election with no Democratic opponent, voters in the district chose Hillary Clinton. That’s left Democrats spoiling for a fight in 2018, though many observers say Sessions still has significant advantages on his side.

Though smaller in number, there was a large contingent of conservatives at the town hall, many with signs that read “Repeal Obamacare.” Some expressed support for the replacement plan drawn up by Paul Ryan. Others were skeptical.

Throughout the town hall, a number of frustrated conservatives left early. Glee Huebner and her husband didn’t like all the shouting and booing.

“We came to show support for him,” Huebner said. “We’re conservative. We were afraid that there would be a lot of non-conservative people here. And we were right.”

Some progressives also left disappointed and said they didn’t feel heard. Leah Murphy says she understood why the crowd

“I think people are very angry and frustrated because the answers that seemed to get through weren’t exactly answering the questions being asked,” she said. “And the answers...didn’t really match what we’ve been reading and seeing and hearing.”

Her friend, Kandace Walter — also a progressive — wanted more listening all around.

“I think maybe Americans are immature and we like to throw tantrums instead of have discussions and try to work things out,” she said.

The conversation should be more civil, she says, which may be one of the only things she and her congressman agree on.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.