BENSALEM TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick was not surprised by the first question at his town hall meeting here Tuesday night.
“I’m shocked to get a Donald Trump question tonight,” the Pennsylvania Republican joked, eliciting laughter from the crowd gathered in the Bensalem Township’s Council meeting room prior to the president’s speech in Phoenix.
He was asked to respond to Trump’s comments on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week, where white supremacists gathered and one woman was killed when a car rammed into counter-protesters. Trump said “both sides” were responsible for the violence, sparking criticism for equating counter-protesters with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
“When you have an incident like that, you can’t equivocate. You can’t even hint at moral equivalency,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can’t even hint at it. You’ve got to call it for what it is, which is evil. And it shouldn’t be hard.”
It’s no surprise that when a Republican congressman in a competitive district faces his constituents, he’s going to be asked about Trump.
Fitzpatrick has broken with the White House on health care and environmental issues. But the persistent questions about Trump’s presidency could signal that Republicans — even those who attempt to distance themselves from Trump — will still have to answer for his actions.
At Fitzpatrick’s first in-person town hall meeting, questions ran the gamut of issues, from the opioid addiction crisis, which is plaguing the district, to immigration and health care.
Fit to serve?
But one of the tenser moments of the relatively calm town hall came when Fitzpatrick was asked if Trump was fit to serve as president.
“I can tell you that I didn’t run for Congress to be responding to tweets every day,” Fitzpatrick said. He later added, “I ran to actually try to get things done … It’s been very distracting.”
A woman in the crowd pressed Fitzpatrick to answer the question.
“I mean let’s be honest, the man is scary,” the woman said of the president. “He’s erratic.”
At that point the moderator, Bill Pezza, a history and government teacher at Bucks County Community College, stepped in to say Fitzpatrick had already responded.
“I don’t think any of us are capable of making psychological evaluations from 1,000 miles away,” Pezza said.
Pressed after the town hall if Trump is fit to serve, Fitzpatrick told reporters, “I’m not a psychologist ... We’ll see. We’ll see how this all plays out.”
Fitzpatrick’s measured criticism of the president is reflective of the challenge he faces in 2018 of garnering support from both people in the district who supported Trump, and voters who are concerned with his presidency.
Trump narrowly won the 8th District by less than 1 point last November, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. So Fitzpatrick is a top target for Democrats who are looking to flip 24 seats to win back the House.
Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, was elected to Congress last year, succeeding his brother, Mike, who retired. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race Lean Republican.
Democrats and local activists have been pressing Fitzpatrick for months to hold an in-person town hall meeting.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a website counting the days Fitzpatrick had not faced his constituents. And local activists launched a “Fridays Without Fitzpatrick” initiative, where they gather at his district office each week to discuss a range of issues.
Those activists were not happy with the parameters of Tuesday night meeting. People interested in attending first had to sign up online to be entered into a lottery. Then the Bucks County Courier Times randomly selected 120 people to attend as well as a few alternates. Pezza, the moderator, then condensed and selected which questions to ask.
Roughly three dozen protesters gathered outside the town hall and criticized the limited meeting. They held their own discussions with a cardboard cutout of Fitzpatrick.
But Tim Pipe, computer analyst from Middletown who attended the town hall, said the smaller crowd likely helped keep things calm inside the meeting
‘A breath of fresh air’
“I’ve seen so many [town hall meetings] on TV that they scream and they hold up signs,” Pipe said. “It’s a breath of fresh air, really.”
Pipe, 57, is a Democrat. He was sporting a “Friend of the Pod” t-shirt, referencing the “Pod Save America” podcast run by former staffers for President Barack Obama. But Pipe said he could potentially support Fitzpatrick.
“He’s not a far right Republican or a far left Democrat,” Pipe said. “... And it sounds to me like he’s willing to listen to both sides and use his morals.”
Pipe pointed to Fitzpatrick’s vote against the GOP health care plan, known as the American Health Care Act. Health care has been a key issue fueling the rancor at other town halls across the country.
Instead of being confronted for his vote on the unpopular bill, Fitzpatrick was asked for specifics on how to fix the health care system, and whether he would consider supporting a single-payer system (Fitzpatrick said he is not inclined to support a “one size fits all” solution but that it was worthy of discussion).
Fitzpatrick told reporters he is getting a mixed reaction from constituents on his vote, but he knew it was the right thing to do.
“It wasn’t a hard vote for me,” he said. “What I’m getting back from constituents, it depends who you ask.”
Pipe was also impressed with Fitzpatrick’s role as a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group. Fitzpatrick referenced the caucus several times in the town hall meeting, and said it is an example for how Congress should work.
Throughout the meeting, Fitzpatrick stressed the need for a civil discourse.
The lack of civility, Fitzpatrick said, is the biggest threat facing the country. And he acknowledged the president is a part of problem.
“It’s destroying our country,” Fitzpatrick said of divisive politics. “And that’s my biggest issue, I would say, with regard to how he’s conducted himself.”