Last Monday, in the spirit of political gonzo journalism, I managed to capture a brief interview with Rep. David Rouzer, U.S. Congressman from North Carolina’s 7th District, by simply walking up to him after a town hall meeting and asking him two questions, point blank. I think I caught him off guard. He let down his trained-politician slickness for a fraction of an instant, and gave me an answer which was both revealing and complex. I’m glad I was there to witness it.
This essay was co-written with a dear friend and writing mentor, Gwenyfar, whose guidance and advice have helped me grow as a writer in ways inexpressible. She owns a wonderful bookstore in Wilmington, which you can find online here, but she much prefers that you do it in person. The bulk of the voice in the piece is hers; I am responsible for almost everything after the paragraph break (surrounding the actual interview with the congressman), and contributed reporting with hand-scrawled notes. I was honored to share the byline with her, and hope we will do it again in the future.
“See that row with the cameras? You can find seats there.” Gwenyfar nodded and thanked the gentleman who escorted us into Congressman Rouzer’s Town Hall meeting at Odell Williamson Auditorium in Brunswick County. We settled in. John pulled out a notebook and began scribbling notes furiously. The third member of our trio snapped pictures and Gwenyfar looked around in astonishment.
When we first walked up to the building, people met us headed the other way. “They’re turning people back – it’s full,” one woman informed us.
“Well, let’s go take a look,” our group mumbled at each other.
At the steps of the Auditorium a crowd pressed against the glass doors. An aging usher was left to defend the statement that the auditorium – which seats 1500 – was full and no one else would be admitted. “But I RSVP’ed!” several people proclaimed, referencing the email that Congressman Rouzer’s office sent asking people to RSVP for the event.
“They’re already throwing people out!” a young man and woman stormed out the glass doors, loudly declaring that they have been thrown out for speaking up. While part of the crowd engaged with them, another part pressed back against the doors with people pointing out that if two people have left that means there should be two seats available. Why not let two more people in? Every time someone stuck their head out of the door to engage with the crowd outside we could hear thunderous cheers from inside. Curiosity piqued – was the applause in favor of something or opposed? What is going on in there?
“Gwenyfar, come on,” John motioned our group in the door. Dressed in a nice blazer and armed with a smile he pressed our Press Credentials and got us seated in the Media Aisle. The electricity in the room crackled. Looking around, Gwenyfar noted with surprise that though there were a few beefy security and law enforcement personnel, it wasn’t overwhelming. Congressman Rouzer was on stage with a gentleman pulling lottery numbers to determine who would be allowed to ask questions. Behind the two men was a screen with a power point presentation. Men in suits held microphones on each side of the house and in the balcony; when someone’s number was called they would walk to the nearest microphone to ask their question. Behind us in the balcony, a real life Cindy Lou Who walked up to the man with the microphone and explained in a sweet, angelic voice filled with concern that “there are a lot of kids in my class who are afraid their parents will get deported. Why do you support this?”
The room erupted in applause. People jumped to their feet to give her a standing ovation.
Wow. Out of the mouths of babes… so simple, so straightforward, so direct.
Rep. Rouzer told the little girl that The President and his team were deporting criminals, murderers and rapists. He was cut off by an animal howl of boos, shouts of ‘Liar!’ and ‘Dump Trump!”, a small amount of scattered applause, and lots of shushing.
“Are you OK?” our third asked Gwenyfar. She nodded and waved back, the intensity of the room so palpable it was hard to breathe. We looked at the stage when our Congressman continued to smile and move toward each questioner and then pace while he responded. Next, an older lady in red stood up to ask a question referencing the President’s “Inspiring speech”. She turned and surveyed the room with surprised look of confusion on her face when the audience laughed. “Oh Gods! She was serious and but the audience thought she was joking…” thought Gwenyfar. No one in our group had ever been to a Townhall before this. The County Conventions, campaign stops, rallies, Power Breakfasts, yes – but nothing quite like this. Behind us to the left, a woman bellowed at the crowd to “Stop Screaming,” her face red and contorted with emotion and concentration.
Perhaps because he wouldn’t give the young lady in the balcony the courtesy of a direct answer instead of a talking point, several people tried asking the Congressman direct “yes or no” questions. One Occupational Therapist, who explained he worked with many geriatric patients, tried asking if the Congressman would vote to privatize Medicare (yes) or leave it alone (no). Avoiding getting pinned down by committing to any course of action, the Congressman responded that Medicare as it stands would have to be adjusted for the long term. The crowd began to chant “Yes or no? Yes or no?” but still the Congressman did not answer directly.
“That’s some serious rhetorical judo,” John noted.
And so it went with the major issues of the day: the Affordable Care Act; Donald Trump’s Income Tax Returns, business interests and ties to Russia; education, Planned Parenthood, the EPA, the Muslim Ban, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then, when asked about Donald Trump calling the Press the Enemy of the State, the Congressman responded “The Press is not fair and objective.”
“It feels like getting hit in the face with a frying pan,” Gwenyfar noted. “To hear someone sworn to defend the Constitution trash the Bill of Rights.” Especially after Pres. George W. Bush’s interview last week on the Today Show calling the media “indispensable for Democracy.”
But the moment that felt like a sonic shock wave moved through the room – the point when we came the closest to breaking down all pretense of civilization – was the response to a question from a gentleman who retired from the EPA after 36 years, who had worked there during Regan, Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama. He pointed out the EPA Clean Power Plan that would have located tens of thousands of jobs right here in NC, which the Congressman did not support and instead supported saving a few jobs in West Virginia. Rep. Rouzer responded that the jobs in West Virginia are important. But when he went on to say that he didn’t just represent North Carolina but everyone in the country, the crowd roared “You work for us! Do your Job!” with a rage so volatile it felt like the roof was going to fly off the building. How exactly does Representation work if our Congressman does not actually represent us, but rather everyone in the nation?
The afternoon surged on at a level of adrenaline that is hard to maintain. The extreme highs and lows of the audience’s responses were terrifying. Rouzer shrugged off the demands and accusations of the crowd the way KY Jelly slides off a Teflon muffin tin. Unfazed by audience response or the attempt to insert either facts or statistics into the conversation, he pressed onward. The only moment he seemed to waver was when Deborah Dicks Maxwell of the NAACP schooled him on the importance of words: the Affordable Care Act has a name – use it, she urged. Furthermore, given the roll back of the EPA, how can communities like Navassa with Superfund Sites expect to get help? She pressed the issue, calling specific attention to the disparity that communities of color face.
The Congressman physically retreated from her across the stage. Without addressing her concerns he managed to get out a “thank you for your comments,” desperately searching for the next questioner in the audience. Visually the exchange was striking and clear. If we were watching a movie instead of democracy in action, this would have been a key moment for illustrating the characters.
At a few minutes to 4 PM, the cut off time, a young meteorology student from N.C. State asked the Congressman directly for his views on Climate Change, and how he planned to defend his district, with its many low-lying coastal areas susceptible to the looming effects of sea level rise.
“Are we done?” Rep. Rouzer asked somewhat rhetorically. People were walking out shaking their heads in disgust as he performed the litany: “The earth has been warming and cooling since the beginning of time… What is it that’s causing it? Some scientists say it’s caused by human activity, and some say it’s not. None of us [in Congress] are scientists. From a Public policy standpoint, when you’re dealing with property values, tax bases, peoples lives… Public policy should be based on real, concrete science, not the opinion of this group of scientists or that group of scientists. The Scientific community is split…”
And then it was over. People trickled out the doors in the back, the flood of emotion retreating back to the simmering sea of everyday life, and we, shuddering and exhausted, stood up to leave too. At the doorway, our Third points downstage to the cluster of people gathered around something, saying “that’s where the Trump voters are,” and holy cow it’s the Congressman, open and available on the floor of the auditorium, surrounded by a small group of people and a few beefy no-necked security guys. “I’ll be right back,” John tells her, and strides down the empty aisle to the orchestra pit, no intention except observation.
“Do you want to join him?” our Third offers. “No, I want to talk to the people in the lobby,” Gwenyfar responded, and the two of them left John to his quest.
John stood at the fringe for a few minutes, observing. The Congressman has taken off his tie, and up close John noticed his suit, a dark royal blue, had a faint plaid pattern to it. It looked very expensive. John’s own blazer, black and wrinkled, the only suit he owns, has gotten him this close to the man himself, beyond the quick up-down glimpses of a beefcake security guard and another guy who looks like a staffer, carrying an important-looking leather shoulder bag and wearing the fraternity uniform of blue blazer tan slacks, both of them scoping John out (they think without him noticing) and then leaning aside so John can get closer. “I’m not a threat,” John realizes. “They believe I’m just another supporter.” The camouflage has worked marvelously. That’s the beautiful thing about thoughts, and the dangerous thing, too- unless they are written down or voiced, they still can’t be read.
John decided not to hammer Rep. Rouzer on environmental issues. This is not the time, and the congressman has already spent two hours fending off better-worded questions than John’s shocked and exhausted brain can think of right then. Instead, two simple questions formulate as the young writer waited and watched the small group take turns coming up, shaking hands, expressing support or telling the Congressman what a good job he is doing, or telling him how he could do it better. And admittedly, Rouzer is marvelous here: courteous, respectful, listening, even if he disagrees, which he does with some people. One man takes a selfie, prompting John and the no-necked security guard, both in the background of the picture, to move their torsoes slightly so their faces are out of frame, and John looks at the guard and flashes his secret weapon: the disarming good natured grin that opens so many doors for him. The guard falls for it, cracks a smile, too, and they acknowledge the human moment they just shared – “The good ol’ Selfie Sway.”
John stood behind the Congressman as he finished talking with the last two people, thanked them graciously, said, “I’ve got to go meet the press now,” and turned to leave. Suddenly he was opposite John’s smile, with a face like oiled dough, eyes a little dark and hollow, like they’re further away than they actually are, his jet-black hair still perfect.
“Hello, Mr. Rouzer. How do you feel?”
“Oh, uh, fine,” he said, a little off-balance for a millisecond as if wondering who the hell John was, then habit takes over and he offers the standard political two-point-of-contact-handshake (soft grasp of hand and touch of upper arm, the touch of power light and brief).
“Why do you do this?”
The Congressman hesitated for another micro instant so John added “It seems like there was a lot of anger directed at you up there.”
This he latched on to. “Well, I don’t view it as anger. I think there was some good dialogue today.” He turned and walked away, owing John nothing else. Then, as he exited to the bright door to the left of the stage where the rest of the press waited, he chuckled and looked back over his shoulder, as he had thought of one more thing: “Nothing happened that I didn’t expect.” And then he was gone.