‘Actually, I was expecting much worse’: Sen. Joni Ernst held a town hall in Iowa City

Audience members react to Senator Joni Ernst’s remarks during a town hall at the Iowa Memorial Union. Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann,

Sen. Joni Ernst’s town hall meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on Friday afternoon started politely, with two rounds of loud applause for Ernst and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The politeness lasted six minutes.

Many in the crowd of more than 900 people in the Main Lounge started shouting in disagreement as Ernst began to praise Graham-Cassidy — a bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and permanently change Medicaid, which Republicans have been trying to rush through the Senate — saying it would give states more flexibility in health care.

Graham-Cassidy and issues related to the ACA dominated the hour-long town hall meeting, during which Ernst took 22 questions from the public. The loudest and longest sustained burst of applause came when Ernst told the crowd it appeared Graham-Cassidy was dead, after Sen. John McCain announced his opposition to it earlier in the afternoon. The loudest and longest sustained round of booing came 35 minutes later, when Ernst said that if there was a vote on Graham-Cassidy, “I’m leaning yes.”

Even though Ernst never actually said she’d vote for the bill (speaking to the press after the town hall, she stuck with her “leaning” phrasing), hands holding red sheets of paper saying “Disagree” shot up. One of those hands belonged to Danielle Hoskins, a University of Iowa graduate student.

Unlike others in the room who also had a green “Agree” sheet of paper, Hoskins only had a Disagree sign.

“They ran out of Agree signs while I was waiting in line,” Hoskins said. “But I told them that was okay, I didn’t think I’d need one.”

Asked at the end of the town hall what she thought of Ernst’s answers, Hoskins said, “I think she was very smooth, very patient and very good at avoiding actually answering the questions.”

Most of Ernst’s answers were vague, and she repeatedly returned to her standard talking points like bipartisan cooperation (she’s in favor of it) and wasteful spending (she’s against it). But about 50 minutes into the town hall, Ernst’s patience began to crack.

“If I said anything, if I said the sky was blue in regards to this health care bill, you would disagree,” Ernst told the audience. She said that in response to a question, during which the audience member said the dishonesty of politicians regarding Graham-Cassidy and other attempts to repeal the ACA reminded him of the dishonesty of American political leaders in the 1960’s, as shown in the new PBS documentary on the Vietnam War.

Ernst continued her reply, “I think the comparison that [the questioner] made between the Vietnam War and this bill is reprehensible.” She then accused the questioner of belittling the sacrifice of the troops who served in Vietnam, even though he’d never mention service members, only politicians.

The next two questioners asked why Ernst wouldn’t let people know how many Iowans had called her office to encourage her to oppose Graham-Cassidy.

“I do represent the entire state of Iowa. I ran for office—repeal, replace—we’ve got to find a way forward,” Ernst said sharply to the first person. She added, “President Trump won Iowa by about 9 percent.”

The second person said she had called Ernst’s office every day to express her opposition to Graham-Cassidy, and pressed the senator to explain why she won’t reveal how many calls her office received.

“You just answered the question as to why we don’t release those results, because you’re calling every day,” Ernst said, with an edge of frustration evident in her voice. “If everyone is calling every hour on the hour, it’s not scientific at all. It’s not one call per person.”

Ernst said firmly she would not reveal how many calls in favor of, or opposed to, Graham-Cassidy her office had received. After she finished her answer, Ernst reestablished her patient demeanor.

There were three attempts to disrupt the town hall. Someone dressed in what appeared to be a homemade robot costume approached the stage approximately 15 minutes into the town hall. Uniformed police officers escorted the protester out. Exactly why he was protesting was initially unclear, because the voice modulator he was using rendered his words incomprehensible.

A robot costume protest has been seen before in the Iowa City area — including a march to protest the pink locker rooms at Kinnick and at events hosted by Bill Clinton and Michele Bachmann. As revealed in a tweet later that day, the wearer was Prairie Pop columnist and UI Professor Kembrew McLeod.

Fifteen minutes after the robot interruption, Emiliano Martinez of Hawkeyes for DREAM Iowa, a student organization that supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program the Trump administration is ending, began shouting about DACA to Ernst. He was also escorted out.

While Ernst was answering a question about DACA about 10 minutes after Martinez was removed (she called Trump’s cancellation of DACA “an appropriate move,” but said she’s in favor of a “some sort of legalized status” for DACA recipients, although she was vague as to what that means), a group of about 20 people began chanting, “We’ve heard enough.” After repeating the phrase five times, the group, which included Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Glasson, marched out of the Main Lounge, still chanting.

Speaking to reporters after the town hall, Ernst said, “We had a great turnout. Some very active, heated discussion, that [sic] I’m glad to have that feedback. It is important that everyone is able to get out and express how they are feeling about different issues.”

Asked by Jason Noble of The Des Moines Register if what happened during the town hall was “the reception you were expecting, the tenor of discourse you were expecting,” Ernst replied, “Actually, I was expecting much worse.”

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