So what were you doing last Saturday morning? Maybe sleeping in after a busy week? Me, I had to wake up at 5 a.m. – and no, I’m not a farmer. I just wanted to attend Congressman Steve Knight’s one and only scheduled town hall, and if I wanted a shot at getting into the event, that was what was required.
You see, after much cajoling and guilting from his constituents, the Palmdale Republican finally committed to holding an actual, in-person public town hall.
However, no doubt wary after seeing national news of his fellow congressmen greeted by huge, angry crowds, Congressman Knight took some precautions to try to game the system and reduce any possible downside for him.
First, the town hall was scheduled at a time designed to annoy and dissuade potential attendants, giving them an easy excuse to skip it: 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. Never mind that most town halls are scheduled later in the day to maximize attendance, but okay – not so bad, right?
Except rather than choose a location in his sprawling district that would be equidistant to most people, he picked a remote spot in Palmdale. While convenient for him and a few folks nearby, it was not so terribly convenient for the vast majority of constituents in the district that stretches to include Simi Valley.
Also, rather than pick a venue that could accommodate a large crowd – like, say, a high school auditorium, he instead booked a relatively small community center that could only seat 279 people. So if you wanted to get inside rather than be shut out on the cold sidewalk, people were encouraged to get there early – like 6:45 a.m.
It got so bad that people actually camped out near the community center and booked nearby hotel rooms so they’d be able to make it in time. Yes, you heard that right: People spending the night not to buy the new iPhone or catch the new “Star Wars” movie, but to attend a congressional town hall.
If that wasn’t enough, the Knight staff let it be known that certain things wouldn’t be tolerated. They didn’t want people filming the event, all the better to prevent some embarrassing question or confrontation from going viral – like Knight’s previous scuffle with protesters, where he threatened to “drop” one of them who was giving him a hard time.
Additionally, no signs would be allowed. Free speech had its place, just not written down on poster boards for people to see, lest their messages of protest offend anyone. I guess liberals aren’t the only ones trying to create “safe spaces” in 2017.
Further, Knight’s staff demanded that people would have to show I.D. at the door, proving they actually lived in the district, to attend the event. How else to keep out Astroturfers and paid protesters bused in to start trouble? And here I was showing up for free like a sucker.
Dutifully, my son and I woke up before dawn on Saturday and made the pilgrimage to Palmdale, arriving around 6:50 a.m. Despite the early time and distant venue, there was already a huge line when we arrived, and we were worried we’d be stuck outside.
Within the hour, the line of people swelled, and best estimates put the crowd at well over 600 people. You’d think Knight was opening for Kanye West.
By the time the event was set to start, things were so bustling that attempts to check I.D., prevent people from filming or holding signs went out the window. Fortunately, my son and I were some of the last few people to make it inside, but more than 300 people were locked out.
Soon after, the town hall began. Knight’s always been a smooth retail politician, and he came off as sharp, reasonable and earnest, picking out attendees to speak at random.
The topics were exactly what you’d expect given the news cycle: people worried about losing their health care with the ACA being on the chopping block, people worried about new draconian immigration laws that threatened to tear families apart, people worried about the rollback of environmental regulations.
Congressman Knight was gracious enough to let me ask the penultimate question: did he have any thoughts on how to address the 11,000 Americans killed every year by gun violence?
Other than his agreement that we should have universal background checks – legislation I’ve never heard him personally champion in the House, by the way – he offered no new ideas on reducing one of the most preventable threats that Americans face each year.
All in all, Knight did a solid job in his first big town hall. While he didn’t answer every question to everyone’s satisfaction, he was respectful and never lost his cool.
Turns out after all the trepidation, he really had nothing to worry about: his constituents just wanted an opportunity for their voices to be heard. I sincerely hope he’ll take a cue from this experience and hold more town halls on a regular basis to encourage this civic engagement.
Except next time, maybe not so early in the morning? Thanks.
Charlie Vignola is a former college Republican turned liberal Democrat. He lives in Fair Oaks Ranch, works in the motion picture industry and loves his wife and kids.