U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis held three town halls in his Minnesota district on Saturday, in Wabasha, Lakeville and Jordan.
They were pitched as a way for the Republican congressman to hear from constituents in the 2nd District — but protesters claimed the events, which required tickets to attend, were rigged to limit the audience to Lewis' supporters. That's a claim Lewis denies.
Outside the Rosehenge Hall in Lakeville on Saturday afternoon, an impromptu choir launched into full-throated protest. To the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus," one group sang:
"New laws in the House are cruel and dumb,
Cruel and dumb
Cruel and dumb.
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New laws in the House are cruel and dumb,
All year round."
The crowd of about 60 outside the hall ran through wide-ranging verses of complaint. However, their signs were much more focused. "Real reps hold real town halls," read one. "No golden ticket for me" read another. Many of the people in the crowd said they had applied for tickets for the town hall forum, but had been refused.
"And since he has shut us out, we are going to have our own people's town hall out here!" one speaker cried. "We're going to make sure that Rep. Lewis knows that no decisions should be made about us without us!"
Nearby, a line of people who did have tickets began forming at the door. There were some short, tense interactions between members of the groups, but mainly they seemed to be trying to ignore each other.
Inside the hall, Lewis' chief of staff, Amy Smith, said the town hall was just the latest opportunity for her boss to interact with constituents.
"He's been doing telephone town halls, he's been meeting with groups and individuals in his district office and around the district, I think 271 of those," she said. "Today is an opportunity for constituents who have not been able to participate in those to come in and talk with him."
When asked about the protesters outside, Smith said the decision to require tickets was taken after someone called in a threat to Lewis' office. The number of tickets was limited by the size of the venue. One hundred tickets were made available for the Lakeville event, and, Smith said, distributed randomly.
"We sorted the list of the people who requested by the deadline by ZIP code and we literally picked people from each ZIP code to make sure it was an easy representation," Smith said.
Just before the scheduled start time of 1:30 p.m., Lewis arrived in a car which drew up to the back door. Some in the crowd outside spotted him.
"I want to ask you a question and I couldn't get a ticket!" yelled one protester.
Inside, after an invocation, prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, audience members were invited to address their comments and questions to Lewis, who sat taking notes at a table. People didn't hold back. Some asked questions about the Trump administration's attack on Obamacare, climate change and about the Black Lives Matter movement. There were others who congratulated Lewis on what he has done in Congress.
"I'd like to first thank you for doing what you said you were going to do when you said you would go to Congress, and that's cutting our taxes. Thank you very much; they were killing us," Scott Gill of Eagan told Lewis. "And I'd also like to thank you for doing what you have done thus far to take care of Obamacare — that's still killing us."
"No, it's saving lives," a woman called from the back.
"Oh, not mine!" Gill responded.
Two questioners pointed out there were many empty seats, and asked if some of the people outside could be admitted.
"If you look around at the number of empty seats here, there are dozens of people outside who would like to come in and talk to you. I don't understand why there are all these empty seats," said Nancy Engle of Rosemount.
Lewis responded about security requiring the advance tickets.
"The first five or six questions and comments were from folks that I would describe as being opposed to me, so it's not as though people aren't getting their chance," Lewis said after the town hall. "We issued about 100 tickets to this, so if somebody didn't show up, they didn't show up; there is nothing we can do about that." During the forum, he addressed at length issues such as health care, trade tariffs, budgeting and tax law.
The one real dialogue was with a woman who described herself as a gun rights advocate. She said she was disturbed by the recent death of a young Minnesota boy who shot himself after finding an unsecured pistol. She asked whether there should be required gun security training for parents. At first Lewis said no, but they appeared to be reaching common ground as they talked.
After the questions wrapped up, Lewis stuck around for a few minutes, chatting.
"I think there is an element that some folks want to turn this into a campaign 'Gotcha!' moment, and that's unfortunate," he said "I had a great conversation with the lady, I am certain wasn't a big supporter. But that's what these are supposed to do, and I'm glad it did."
Lewis then headed off for the final town hall of the day, scheduled for a coffee shop in Jordan.