While Republicans in Congress have been ducking for cover at town hall meetings, or not having them to avoid the rancor spurred by President Trump, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho took a different approach in Gainesville Saturday — he engaged the opposition.
The result was a boisterous but largely polite exchange of views that was fun for Yoho and left many in the crowd with satisfaction that they got their positions across.
"I hope this town hall sets the standard," Yoho said. "I thank you for being here and I thank you for letting me be your representative, even though I know most of you didn't vote for me."
Gainesville teacher Marihelen Wheeler didn't vote for Yoho in 2014 — she ran against him. Yet Wheeler was on the stage at Countryside Baptist Church as moderator of the town hall.
Seating in the church was limited to about 300. Many more were chanting, singing and speaking outside along Northwest 39th Avenue. Most were opponents of Trump, waving signs against his immigration proposals, plans to cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and calling for investigation into Trump's ties to Russia.
Trump supporters were there as well, but in much smaller numbers. After the town hall a scuffle broke out between a Trump supporter and an opponent.
By prearranged protocols, questions were written on paper and put into a basket from which they were drawn. All of the questions were on issues of concern to progressives — healthcare, LGBT rights, immigration and calls for independent investigations of Russia's interference in the presidential election and its ties to the Trump administration.
Yoho agreed Russia is a concern. But while Democrats are calling for a special prosecutor to investigate, Yoho indicated he would not favor that.
"If somebody is in our country interfering with the electoral process, I think that warrants investigation," he said, drawing shouts of "how" from the audience.
"How? Have a preliminary investigation and if it warrants it, a bi-partisan committee hearing," Yoho said, adding an independent prosecutor is "a legal thing. I would stick with the House (of Representatives). I don't want anybody outside."
Yoho added he will again file bills to define "high crimes and misdemeanors" and to form a permanent select committee to determine misconduct in the executive branch — bills he's filed under a Democratic and now Republican president.
Another major topic was immigration. Yoho drew shouting from the audience when he said he supports Trump's executive order on immigration that was halted by the courts. It led to an exchange with an audience member.
"I stand with his ban. It's not a ban, it's a pause. How many people here read the executive order?" Yoho asked.
"I did. It's unconstitutional," said one woman.
"Why is it unconstitutional?" Yoho asked.
"Because he is discriminating based on religion," she replied.
"If you read the executive order, it never once mentions religion," Yoho said.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was another big topic. Yoho said he strongly favors repeal and replacement, saying improvements are needed.
Many in the audience expressed skepticism through cat-calls when Yoho said the replacement will cover pre-existing conditions, that children can remain on the policies of their parents until the age of 26 and that the cost of medicine will be reduced.
At several points, Yoho chided audience members for not coming to previous town halls to talk about their concerns. He also said that on some topics he will always vote according to his philosophy, but is open to persuasion on others.
And if people disagree with him, Yoho said they should vote him out of office.
"If you don't like it, win the election in two years," Yoho said. "You can find a candidate to run against me and it won't hurt my feelings."
Some in the audience said afterward that Yoho failed to give specific answers to some questions. Among them was Westminster Presbyterian Church pastor Larry Green. He asked Yoho what he would do to assist LGBT Americans, who are feeling threatened by Trump's policies.
"He would dance around the answers," Green said.
Speaking to The Sun in his office after the town hall, Yoho said he enjoyed the give-and-take with the crowd. Yoho said he can be swayed by meeting with constituents.
"It's an open engagement. I enjoy the dialogue and I'm willing to listen to views that aren't mine. We can discuss them. I try to do it respectfully, and I do have fun," Yoho said. "They can help educate me. Marihelen has done that."
Yoho will hold a town hall in April that is planned for east Gainesville.