NORFOLK, Va. — At a recent town hall here in Virginia’s second most populous city, Rep. Robert C. Scott patiently took questions from more than two dozen residents waiting in line. The queue stretched to the very back of a high school auditorium with some standing for the entire portion of the two-hour public meeting.
Absent was the rancor that has dominated town halls across the country this year — mostly those held by congressional Republicans facing angry crowds, upset over changes the GOP wants to make to the 2010 health care law and expressing steadfast opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency.
But here in the 3rd District, Scott was met with applause, gratitude and support from a crowd who gave the congressman little blowback. (Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the city of Norfolk by more than 40 points last fall.)
“I want to thank you for the decorum,” Scott told the audience in his final remarks. “I’m sure you’ve seen some town hall meetings conducted by members of Congress that didn’t look like this one.”
While the political rhetoric out of Washington has contributed to a nonstop cycle of rage, and a violent protest 165 miles away just two days earlier brought out neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Scott’s day in the heavily Democratic district on Monday showed a slice of the U.S. carved out in calm.
The 70-year-old congressman started the week joining a host of local and statewide elected officials during a daylong excursion to several stops around the district.
The itinerary included a brewery opening in Portsmouth with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who was met with handshakes and hugs, and a visit to a local nonprofit that teaches troubled kids to build small sailboats.
At the town hall, most of the questions from attendees related to health care.
But others focused on public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects (notable in an area connected by several major bridges and tunnels), decriminalizing marijuana, gerrymandering, and veterans issues — the Defense Department is the largest employer in the city.
Hardly any brought up topics that dominated the days’s headlines — including the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.
Even Trump’s name hardly came up.
“That’s probably close to the norm,” said Matthew Green, a politics professor at Catholic University of America. “If you’re a member of Congress, to get re-elected, you need to focus on what matters locally, which could be national, but often is not.”
That no one mentioned much about the Charlottesville protests that brought out neo-Nazis and white supremacists and gripped national attention did not surprise Scott.
“I don’t think there was much to talk about,” he said after the town hall. “No one is going to be up there to try to defend the neo-Nazis and [the] violence. What are they going to say?”
First elected in 1992, Scott is the senior most member of the Virginia delegation, along with 6th District GOP Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte.
His district was at the heart of a voting rights case in which a federal court ruled that Republicans controlling the Virginia General Assembly had packed African-American voters into the district in order to protect white majorities in nearby districts represented by Republicans. A new map went into effect last year, and Democrats ended up picking up a seat.
Military and defense industries dominate the heart of Scott’s district in Hampton Roads, chief among them the Norfolk Navy Yard. Shipbuilding is also lucrative in the area.
The 13-term lawmaker said his district has been redrawn six times since his first election. But his work has remained the same meeting with constituents, local officials, schools and businesses while maintaining re-election campaigns.
“We’ve never experienced the kinds of things you see on TV,” Scott said, save for the people who rebelled against Democrats when Congress was crafting legislation that became the 2010 health care law.
The Newport News resident set his sights last year on becoming the commonwealth’s junior senator. Aside from spending more time outside his district, Scott said touring the state as a potential Senate candidate was not much different from campaigning for his own re-election.
Except that meant he had to set up two campaigns back-to-back: One to seek an appointment to the position by McAuliffe, and another to run for a full term in office two years later.
“That’s pretty well gone,” Scott now said of his prospects for a Senate promotion.
The congressman said he’s just preparing for his own House re-election now, which he hasn’t yet formally announced. He lauds Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner as being the best representatives for the state in the Senate and for the time being, Scott appears unlikely to make public any future plans.
“If you’re an elected official, you’re not going around saying I can’t wait for another job,” Green of Catholic University said. “That doesn’t endear you to your voters.”