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East Texans hold 'town hall' without Gohmert

By Glenn Evans
April 18, 2017 at 10:40 p.m.
Updated April 19, 2017 at 9:54 a.m.

Cathy Michaels attends a town hall meeting held Tuesday in Longview by the Democratic Women of East Texas.

Singer Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" greeted more than 120 progressive East Texans arriving Tuesday for a congressional town hall meeting that most seemed to understand their congressman would boycott.

"I always believed that listening to my constituents was the most basic and core tenet of the job I was hired to do," read a statement that Democratic former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords sent to meeting organizers.

Organizers said Tuesday that they first invited Tyler Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert to the event in February.

Gohmert issued a statement last week that said, "I am not canceling prior commitments to attend whatever distraction this disruptive group scheduled."

Gohmert's spokeswoman in Washington did not respond to News-Journal queries sent last week asking where he would be Tuesday and what his recess schedule is.

An online petition asking the congressman to host an in-district town hall meeting had drawn 167 signatures by Tuesday morning. Signers were from Longview, Tyler, Gilmer, Nacogdoches and elsewhere in the 12-county district.

At the meeting Tuesday night, a piñata in red stripes at stage left — a la "Where's Waldo?" — was a stand-in for the missing Republican as several clips of previous statements he has made were played in the Longview Community Theater auditorium. Various speakers, invited by the sponsoring Democratic Women of East Texas, then would comment on Gohmert's recorded words.

For instance, one clip showed Gohmert distinguishing health insurance from health care during a speech on the House floor.

"We should be most concerned about access to affordable health care whether they have insurance or not," he said.

That drew a response from speaker Vik Verma, the regional leader of the pro-Obama Organizing for Action and recent hospital patient after a Feb. 20 wreck. Verma praised the insurance he buys through the national insurance exchange created by the Affordable Care Act, the health care law that Barack Obama signed as president.

"Health insurance means you get health care," he said. "I may have access to a Lamborghini. It doesn't mean I can get one."

Verma said his surgery and other medical bills after the wreck had topped $400,000.

"My out-of-pocket was $3,500," he said.

Tuesday's "town hall" crowd, in addition to Gregg and Smith counties, were from Democratic or Indivisible affiliates in Nacogdoches, Marshall and deep East Texas.

"If Louie would come and meet with us, we would be courteous," Smith County Indivisible leader Lee Hancock told the audience. "We would be East Texas nice; we would listen to him."

Gohmert, in a previous statement from Washington, had cited fears of violence against himself and constituents attending a town hall. That statement cited the near-fatal shooting of Giffords at a public appearance in her Arizona district.

In another House floor speech shown on the screen Tuesday about the topic of same-sex marriage, Gohmert described a movie plot in which humans escape an imperiled earth, a la Noah's Ark, by rocketing to another planet.

"If you could decide how many ... people would be placed in the space shuttle to save humanity, how many of those would be same-sex couples?" Gohmert rhetorically asked.

That drew Longview native and LGBT community member Josh Gibson to respond.

"There are people that love and accept us," he said. "You may be a certain religion, Mr. Gohmert, but that's not the views of me and my family."

Gohmert is a conservative Christian.

Before the meeting started, Longview immigration lawyer Jose Sanchez looked at the growing audience and noted its size.

"It's important for people to interact with people in the community and share philosophies and interests and politics," he said. "Especially in a non-election year, I think it's important for grass-roots interaction and getting people who could be leaders in the local community in politics going into the election year."

A nonprofit Bernie Sanders-inspired group called Our Revolution set up a booth in the community center lobby at the meeting. Member Von Criswell of Tyler said Our Revolution is recruiting local political candidates.

"We are committed to getting young progressives involved in the political process at a local level," she said. "I can tell you there's more heat and more fire and attention on this topic than ever before."

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