For four rough hours Friday, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast was jeered and, less frequently, cheered during a packed, raucous town hall meeting at the Havert L. Fenn Center here.
Mast, a double amputee Army veteran elected in November, held the meeting to address the concerns of military veterans, but he got an earful on a host of other issues, particularly the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. And Trump was a particular focus of rage, drawing derision from some who castigated the president as a nationalist, a fascist and a habitual liar.
In perhaps the most emotional moment of the day, Army veteran Peter Hesford of Jensen Beach took the microphone, approached Mast and unburdened himself, describing a difficult stint in the military that left him broken and suicidal.
That struggle, he said, has been compounded by Trump’s election.
“I love my country so much,” he said, pausing to cry as the audience looked on. “My country means the world to me, and I am so scared of this nationalist, fascist…”
Audience members applauded as Mast hugged the man.
The town hall meeting, Mast’s first since winning election, was extraordinary not only for its length — four hours, after it had been scheduled for only 1½ hours — but for the intense anger directed at a congressman who has only held office for a few weeks. Mast ran as a conservative but has positioned himself more moderately since he’s been in Washington, seeking and then touting his inclusion on committees that allow him to work on environmental issues and waterway restoration, issues typically important to Democrats.
None of that spared him Friday from voters so angry that, at a few points, they turned their fury on one another, loudly debating political points while Mast fielded questions.
Many of the talking points that stood Republicans in good stead on the campaign trail — respect for states’ rights, getting rid of “waste, fraud and abuse,” repeal of Obamacare, bashing illegal immigration — drew condemnation Friday. Audience members also booed whenever Mast veered into long answers instead of saying yes or no.
Most of those in the audience seemed intent on tearing into the congressman, though he had plenty of supporters among the nearly 500 people who showed up, including Patrick Dicesare of Port St. Lucie.
“I’ve never been so proud of my country as I have been in the last two months with the election of yourself and the election of Donald J. Trump,” Dicasare said as many audience members booed.
The town hall meeting offered up a sort of greatest hits for liberals enraged by Trump and by Republicans they say are doing nothing to check him.
There was anger about Trump’s refusal to release his taxes, calls for an independent investigation of Russia’s possible involvement in Trump’s election, fury at the president’s proposed border wall between Mexico and the United States and anger about his attacks on the press.
Trump and other Republicans have described the anger on display at recent town hall meetings across the nation as being organized and paid for by liberal interest groups. That did not appear to be the case in Fort Pierce.
Many of those in attendance stated where they live before they asked a question, and all of the cities were in Palm Beach County or on the Treasure Coast. Some, aware of what the president Republicans have been saying, also pointed out that they weren’t paid to show up.
Mast offered his views on a variety of subjects, but audience members weren’t happy with them.
The congressman said Trump should release his tax returns if he has promised to do so, frustrating audience members who wanted Mast to call on the president to release the returns as has every president since Richard Nixon. When Mast said he’d look into legislation, one woman shouted, “Why didn’t you sponsor it?”
Mast did say he’d back an independent, bipartisan investigation of possible Russian involvement in the election.
“I am always a proponent of letting the truth and the facts fall where they may,” Mast said, drawing applause.
Mast’s support for a border wall drew boos and chants of derision. The congressman pushed back against Trump’s description of the press as the “enemy of the people,” but he did express common cause with those who feel the press takes some comments out of context.
Mast’s call for a repeal of Obamacare drew the most sustained anger. The topic came up again and again, with constituents urging him not to support repeal unless Republicans have a plan that won’t lead to higher costs or more people without insurance.
Unlike some in his party who canceled town hall meetings when they came to believe they’d be in for a rough ride, Mast did not cancel the meeting. He also did not lose his temper as angry audience members booed some of his answers or shouted at him in fury.
Respect for Mast’s military service — and the congressman’s calm responses over the course of the meeting — seemed to keep the audience from being even harder on him. Several thanked him for “having the nerve” to hold the town hall meeting and listen to them.
He answered every question asked and stood on stage talking to other audience members as the lights in the room was dimmed and someone shouted that it was time for people to leave.
“We may not always agree on every issue, but it’s critical to listen to each other and hear all sides of an issue,” Mast said in a statement released after the town hall ended. “I stayed for four hours today so that everyone who wanted an opportunity to ask a question had an opportunity to have their voice heard. I strongly believe that there is far more that we can agree on than we disagree on.”