Freshman Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL-18) wanted his first in-person town hall meeting to be an hour-and-a-half focused on veterans’ issues.
Instead, he got an angry crowd of almost 500 grilling him on a range of issues Friday afternoon. Issues like the GOP’s plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, defunding Planned Parenthood, the environment, President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, the proposed border U.S.-Mexico border wall, and veterans’ issues.
This has been typical of other Republican lawmakers’ town halls, where enraged crowds demand their representative oppose the GOP and its leader, President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, two Central Florida Republican Congressman got so upset at their town halls’ jeering crowds that they left early. Dennis Ross of Lakeland snuck out the back door at an angry town hall. Daniel Webster of Clermont left an hour early without taking questions.
Mast did not run or hide.
He stood on stage at the Havert L. Fenn Center in Fort Pierce and took it all. Demands that he support investigating Russian interference with the Presidential election. Demands that he reveal how the GOP will replace Obamacare without leaving them uninsured. Demands that he explain why he voted to allow coal mines to pollute rivers. Complaints about the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Demands that he oppose defunding Planned Parenthood.
For four hours straight, Mast calmly replied to questions and comments from more than 50 people -- answering some, dodging others, and arguing with one. Most of the audience opposed the Congressional GOP’s platform. But some Mast supporters asked their Congressman a question or gave a positive comment.
Mast, a 36-year-old Afghanistan war veteran, lost his legs when a roadside bomb in Kandahar destroyed them in 2010. He uses prosthetic legs to get around.
Most cheered when veterans commented on veteran-specific issues -- usually about their awful experiences with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or how tough it is to find help. The crowd usually cheered after Mast addressed those concerns.
But for the most part, Mast got booed and jeered when he tried to explain or defend his positions.
Justine Somers, a Port Saint Lucie homemaker, asked her Congressman, “Do you accept the U.S. taxpayer paying up front to build the wall? And that is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” she said, referring to Trump’s biggest promise, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mast joked, “I’m a Congressman. You should know we don’t answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ So let’s talk about the wall for a sec--” but the crowd was not having it. “Answer the question!” people yelled, “Yes or no!”
Mast continued, “Number one, a wall has my full support on the southern border--”
“BOO! NO,” the crowd snapped back, although a handful cheered Mast. He said border security already costs the federal government $11 billion a year, but gave no estimate about the cost of building and maintaining Trump’s wall each year.
“So here are the two reasons I come to that conclusion specifically. When you look at money spent [on border security], it is a dollar-saving measure--”
“BOO! BOOOOO! IS HE SERIOUS?!”
“And here’s the second reason,” Mast continued, “The advantage of a wall is that it does not discriminate against anybody. It enforces the law--”
“BOOO! DID HE REALLY SAY THAT?!”
Somers was not a fan of what her representative said. “I was disappointed by his answer. I’m surprised he was direct,” she said.
More Mexicans have been leaving America than entering it, Pew Research found in 2015.
Another of Mast’s constituents, Ann Miller of suburban West Palm Beach, urged Mast not to gut Obamacare.
“I am a dead woman walking,” she said. Miller has had recurring breast cancer, costing her $200,000 in medical bills, she said. “I’m a good Republican,” she continued, “I take care of myself. I pay my taxes. When you’re monkeying around with healthcare without a plan” a lot of people are put at risk. “Doesn’t matter what you say, you are destabilizing [the market] by talking about it without a plan.”
Miller ended her comment on a cryptic note. “I will send you a picture of myself every three months,” she said, “And when I stop sending pictures, You’ll know my medicine stopped working, or I can’t afford them.” Medicare has no cap on how much it can supplement the insurance Miller gets from work. She is worried that Republicans’ repeal of ACA will mean Medicare will spend less on her supplement. The ACA covers 12.7 million people.
At one point, Mast argued with Lake Worth resident Melissa Stiehler, regional coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast.
Stiehler said a friend of hers could not find work because she has Crohn’s disease. She is seven months pregnant and has a three-year-old son. “She is not eligible to get disability,” Stiehler said, adding that her friend used Planned Parenthood to find medical care she could afford before she got a plan under Obamacare.
Without the ACA, “What would be your advice to her?” Stiehler demanded.
Mast, who said his mother has Crohn’s, replied, “The options are plentiful.”
Stiehler shot back, “It’s not true. The other clinics have already said to her, ‘No, we can’t carry that weight.”
Mast dodged the question. “I am in favor of the Hyde Amendment,” he said, referring to a law passed in 1976 that bans the federal government from paying for abortions. Crowd members yelled, “What’s abortion got to do with that?!”
Stiehler was not having it. “That’s been over since the seventies,” she said.
Mast said, “I’ve heard that three percent of Planned Parenthood [services] are for abortions. That’s still three hundred thousand a year.” That set the crowd off. “BOOOOO,” they yelled.
When Stiehler got back to her seat, she said she was dissatisfied with Mast. “He answered with a non-answer,” she complained, “He’s putting politics over progress.” Mast wants to cut all federal spending on Planned Parenthood. On Tuesday about 50 of his constituents went to his Port Saint Lucie office to urge him against this.
A pro-Planned Parenthood constituent, Terri Walden of Port Saint Lucie, at one point said, “There is affordable healthcare all along, it’s called Planned Parenthood,” she said, “I hope you will not defund it.” She added her hope that Mast would oppose spending tax money on privately-run charter schools. Mast did not indicate he would obey her wish.
The most emotional moment came from Peter Hesford, a tall army veteran wearing a shirt reading “Iraq war veteran against the war.”
Throughout the town hall, he could not contain his anger at the Trump administration. He and an elderly Cuban Trump-supporting woman would argue, to the chagrin of surrounding audience members.
But when Hasden stepped up to the mic, his voice grew hoarse and started crackling as his eyes welled up. “I find that one way we can take care of our veterans--” he breathed “--is we can stop making combat veterans,” he yelled. “I think about what we were part of -- torture -- and I am so scared by this nationalist fascist who wants to destroy my country!” By this point, Mast had walked down the stage with his prosthetic legs to hug Hasden, veteran to veteran.
One angry woman in the audience looked at the moment and screamed, “Fake news!” Another yelled back at her, “He’s an Iraq veteran and you’re gonna call him fake news?!”
Hasden fought in Iraq in 1997 against Saddam Hussein, who was committing genocide against the Kurds. Hasden said he lives in Oregon, but went to high school in Jensen Beach, where he was visiting his father.
Mast spent four hours at a town hall originally scheduled for 90 minutes. He spent much of that time getting booed when bringing up the repeal of Obamacare, states rights, his tepid support for auditing Trump, his anti-abortion rights stance. But he was cheered when he promised veterans he would investigate their complaints against the Department of Veterans Affairs -- he’s on their health care, unlike most other members of Congress, he said.
Mast was booed for his vote to repeal a rule banning coal companies from dumping debris in rivers, but he justified by saying laws already exist on federal and state level to stop that. Similar reason he voted against a bill known as HJ Res 36, he said.
That bill allows drilling operations to pollute more by relaxing federal regulation meant to limit methane gas byproduct from drilling. Mast said he voted against it since there were no other federal or state-level regulations similar to it. For that, he was cheered.
The Congressman was also cheered when he promised to open an office in the West Palm Beach Veterans Affairs buiding.
Mast met Wednesday with 10 members of anti-Trump group Palm Beach Indivisibles. Mark Beaumont, a sign maker and Indivisibles member from Jupiter, organized the meeting.
Mast’s opinion on Syrian refugees surprised Beaumont. He wrote that the gist of what Mast said was “100,000 Syrians fled into Jordan and have the potential to become terrorists and they did not have the fortitude to stay and fight for their country, why should we help them?” Mast denied saying that. He said he told them “I am not willing to let my fellow servicemen stand in front of [refugees] but I will ask them to stand alongside them.”
Beaumont invited Mast to speak at a Saturday protest against repealing the Affordable Care Act. The rally is scheduled to take place from noon to 3 p.m. in Currie Park at 2400 North Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach.
Mast’s district covers Saint Lucie and Martin counties, as well as northeastern Palm Beach county.
Around one in nine adults in Mast’s district are military veterans, compared to one in 12 nationally, Census data shows.
Six out of ten veterans voted for Donald Trump, the New York Times reported.
Mast endorsed Trump during the 2016 campaign. Unlike some Republicans, he never withdrew his endorsement, even after video footage revealed in October showed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Mast represents Florida’s 18th Congressional district, which is not solidly Republican or Democrat. Before the freshman Congressman won the seat in November, it was held by Democrat Patrick Murphy for two terms. Before that, Tea Party Republican Allen West held it.