BRANCHBURG, N.J. — The soft-spoken Leonard Lance, a moderate Republican from affluent New Jersey, is an unlikely politician to attract national media to his backyard.
But as one of just a handful of GOP congressmen — and the only Republican in New Jersey — holding a town hall during the Presidents Day recess, Lance is a rare breed. He’s the first Republican representing a district Hillary Clinton won to hold a town hall since President Donald Trump took office.
Lance was often deferential to an audience of more than 900 here at Raritan Valley Community College, which is down the road from the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.
“I hope I’m known as a person who’s respectful,” said the mild-mannered congressman, inviting a questioner to stay at the mic after asking his question. “I hope this is interactive.”
Lance wasn’t shy about pointing out areas where he differed from the president — he touted his early criticism of Trump’s executive order on refugees and said he wanted to investigate Russia’s role in the election — including connections with the Trump campaign. But he said he was confident in the abilities of the House and Senate Intelligence committees to conduct that investigation — an observation which did not go over well with the audience.
One of the most heated moments came in response to a question about whether Lance supported New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr.’s efforts to get the Ways and Means Committee to force Trump to release his tax returns.
The crowd rose to applaud the question, while Lance stood behind a podium emblazoned with the seal of the House of Representatives.
“I think Congressman Pascrell’s bill goes too far,” Lance said to boos from the audience. “I don’t like overreach from Congress.”
But the questioner, decked out in a red Rutgers hat and shirt, wasn’t finished: “Excuse me, you didn’t answer the question, congressman.”
“I answered it to the best of my ability,” Lance responded. The congressman said he doesn’t release his own tax returns.
Lance never lost his composure, but he was sometimes unsure of how to handle the constant interjections. It started with his introduction, when he listed the counties that feed into the local community college system. After a woman in the audience called out "Morris," which is not part of the same system, he paused, then stumbled when trying to regain his train of thought.
He never wavered from a style that sometimes seemed too formal for such an event. He didn't budge from behind his podium and at one point felt the need to tell the crowd he was speaking in the subjunctive tense.
As has been the case at recent town halls across the country, many of the audience questions were about the 2010 health care law.
“We are in situation where we should repair,” Lance said to applause from the audience. He said proudly that he was among the first Republicans to use the “repair” language.
The process for taking questions was akin to a lottery, with Lance reaching into a blue plastic basket, pulling out a number and asking, “Last four digits 8657 — is that person here?” A half-hour in, the crowd asked him to “stir the pot.” Lance responded with his first crack at humor. “Obviously, I haven’t stirred it well enough given the questions I’ve received so far,” he said, drawing laughs.
Speaking to reporters after the event, the five-term congressman said that like other recent town halls he’s read about across the country, this one was “vigorous,” and he even compared it to the vitality of the tea party movement. Lance said he was impressed by the number of questions about Russia.
Protesters — and even a few llamas — assembled outside the event hours before it began.
“I’m here to send a message to Congressman Lance that we are watching him,” said Chapin Wright, 64, of Delaware Township. Another protester who said he’d heard of the event from the local Indivisible chapter scoffed at the notion that protesters came from outside the district. “I could have walked here,” said Branchburg resident Brian Bilsky, 45.
Lance didn’t doubt the motivations of his audience. “I don’t think they were paid,” he told reporters. He’d been planning to hold one town hall this week, but has also scheduled another one for Saturday morning to accommodate the constituents who couldn’t get into Wednesday’s event.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has included Lance on its list of 59 initial targets for 2018. The 7th District, which has the highest median household income in the state and one of the highest in the nation, is the kind of well-educated suburban district Democrats think could help them win the House majority.
But even though Clinton narrowly carried this district last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, it remains to be seen whether President Trump will be more of a drag on down-ballot Republicans than candidate Trump was. Lance won re-election by 11 points.
The last question Lance took devolved into yet another back-and-forth about how Congress should push back on Trump. “Republicans need to push back when he’s not honest,” one member of the audience said.
Lance nodded, his response drowned out by chants of “Push back, push back!”
Correction: This article originally stated that Lance was listing the counties he partially represents and forgot to mention Morris County. He was listing the counties in the local community college system, of which Morris is not a part.