Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s town hall

Jeff vonKaenel

Crowd management is an important feature of any politician’s town hall meeting. In normal times, the major problem is how to find a crowd to manage. But we are not living in normal times. Now we’ve got some real crowd control problems.

In 2016, Sacramento Democratic Rep. Ami Bera took tough questions about his vote on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act at his Elk Grove town hall meeting, attended by more than 300 people. More recently, Roseville Republican Rep. Tom McClintock made national news when he was escorted out of a raucous town hall meeting by police, escaping hundreds of angry residents concerned about losing their health care and other President Donald Trump-related issues.

So I did not know what to expect when Sacramento Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui scheduled a President’s Day town hall meeting at Sutter Middle School to discuss health care. I’ve attended many town halls during normal times. Usually, there are few people and little energy. But at Matsui’s event, the energetic crowd, estimated at 600, overflowed the gym.

It was a love fest. After Matsui was introduced, she received a standing ovation. Unlike McClintock, who opposed the Affordable Care Act, Matsui supported it and was part of the Democratic brain trust that helped navigate it through stormy political waters.

Now Matsui is in the position of trying to save the ACA. Audience members did not come to change her mind about health care. They came to receive their marching orders. They wanted her to explain what was happening, and to tell them what they could do to help.

Matsui explained that the Republicans have turned health care into health chaos. When Barack Obama was president, they did not have to worry about any of their ideas actually being implemented. So they could rail against the unpopular parts of the bill, such as increased taxes, without actually having to figure out a workable system. But now their ideas cannot be implemented without the system crashing down.

Matsui deferred all political questions. She focused all her answers on explaining legislation, rather than focusing on defeating Republicans.

I am 65 years old. And I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. There were so many people who have never been engaged politically before, wanting to do something. It reminds me of hearing my parents and grandparents talk about the Depression and World War II. The Depression stories were all about the family and the neighbors sticking together to get through tough times. And their World War II stories were all about what they did to help the war effort. Some joined the Army. Others grew vegetable gardens. And still others knitted socks for the soldiers.

This is not the Great Depression. But there is no denying that this is a critical moment for our country. And at a middle school gym, more than 600 mostly white, mostly middle-aged residents asked their congressperson not for a reduction in their taxes or an extra benefit, but rather, how could they help their country in this time of need.

And the woman before them, who took her first breath in a Japanese internment camp in Poston, Ariz., on September 25, 1944, was now a member of the U.S. Congress.

It was a very American moment. An America-worth-fighting-for moment.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.