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Russell town hall gets rowdy as constituents demand answers on controversial issues

Linda Molsbee for Red Dirt Report
Oklahoma City resident Janetta Cravens asks Steve Russell about tax reform and non-profits.
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Congressional staffers suggest some guests were instructed to disrupt meeting

SHAWNEE, Okla. – Congressman Steve Russell believes President Donald Trump and the press “should call a truce” to the ongoing battle that started during the campaign.

Trump has called the press an enemy to the American people and reporters from high-profile news agencies have been shut out of at least one briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Russell’s comment came in response to a question from Ann Young, one of an estimated 300 people who attended a Shawnee town hall meeting Friday night.

Young asked Russell if he agreed that the news media is fake and is the enemy of the American people.

Ann Young asks question to Steve Russell about President Donald Trump's feud with the press. (Linda Molsbee for Red Dirt Report)

Russell did not answer the question directly, but instead offered his truce comment. Young also asked if those attending Friday’s meeting could count on Russell to speak out against Trump for his attitude toward the press.

Again, Russell did not answer the question.

His lack of direct answers prompted some people to shout, “You didn’t answer the question.” Others yelled, “Answer the question.”

Russell explained further.

“To reduce people to name calling and groupings, we use it as a filter not to listen,” he said.

At least one audience member agreed with Trump. The man yelled, “The press is lying through their teeth.”

Each time the crowd became unruly, Russell would ask for their respect and at one point he began to “shh” them, which drew the ire of one older woman who yelled, “You can’t shh us. You don’t shh your constituents.”

Russell staffers told Red Dirt Report several people attending the town hall were part of a group known as Indivisible, a web site that instructs people how to ask questions and interrupt political meetings, such as congressional town halls, until they hear the answer they want.

The web site, www.indivisibleguide.com, instructs people about demanding “real answers.” The website states, “MoCs (members of Congress) are very good at deflecting or dodging questions they don’t want to hear. If the MoC dodges, ask a follow-up question. If they aren’t giving you real answers, then call them out for it. Other group members around the room should amplify either by booing the MoC or applauding you.

The website also encourages people not to relinquish control of the microphone until they receive the answer they want.

Russell did not allow people to handle the mic Friday night. Instead, he held the mic for them as they asked their questions.

Upon entering the building Friday night, each person was handed a green card with the word “Agree” printed on it, and a red card with the word “Disagree.” The intent was for people to express their feelings without shouting. The cards reportedly were passed out by those associated with the Indivisible group.

However, the cards had little impact as emotions ran high with several issues. The most intense reaction came in connection with the Affordable Care Act. Numerous people disagreed with Russell that Republicans can offer a better alternative to the ACA. A handful told their personal stories about ailing family members who would not receive medical care without the ACA.

U.S. Rep. Steve Russell is asked question about Affordable Care Act by constituent whose wife suffers from cancer and daughter's diabetes diagnosis. (Linda Molsbee for Red Dirt Report)

After several questions about pre-existing conditions and whether that would be included in a new health care plan, Russell said he believes it will be part of any new health care plan. He also suggested catastrophic coverage will remain the same, but provided a caveat for the provision that allows people 26 and under to stay on their parent’s insurance plan.

Russell said he would continue to support the 26-and- under plank as long as the young adult was in college or working toward a trade in a vocational technical center.

“At some point, people have to take responsibility,” he said.

At one point, a woman asked Russell how much he paid for his health insurance. Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with 21 years of military service and numerous combat deployments, walked over to the woman, pointed at his combat lapel pin on his sports coat and said, “This is how I paid for it.”

One man whose daughter suffers from diabetes and whose wife has been diagnosed with cancer wanted Russell to guarantee him that his family would not lose their medical coverage when the ACA is repealed and replaced.

Strong reactions also were expressed in connection with possible Medicare and tax reforms.

However, Russell had his supporters, too. About halfway through the town hall, about three dozen people walked to the front of the room and stood behind the congressman in a show of support.

Carolyn Dershem said she was upset Russell didn’t answer questions directly but was pleased that he scheduled a town hall to gain public input.

Oklahoma City resident Janetta Cravens expressed a similar opinion that she appreciated the town hall as a way to exchange ideas.

“But I’m not sure I’m leaving here with a definite idea of his opinions,” she said.

After the town hall, Russell told Red Dirt Report said some audience members “wanted it to get confrontational, but we weren’t willing to go there.” Russell promised he would take the input gleaned from the town hall meeting to pursue the type of legislation his constituents want.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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