Healthcare, Russia and climate change were a few of the topics on District 10 constituents' minds as they filled the Larsa Banquet Hall Monday night, ready for a showdown with Congressman Jeff Denham at the second town hall event held since President Trump took office in January.
In March Denham spoke in Ceres at the Ceres Chamber's annual Legislative Breakfast but attendance was sparse.
About 1,000 - mostly those who did not vote for Denham - became loud and demanding during the nearly three-hour event, opposing Denham on almost every subject. Chants of "Do your job!," "You work for us!" and "No wall!" echoed through the hall at various points, with members of the audience raising red and green flashcards to show their disapproval or support of statements made. A sea of red cards could be seen nearly every time Denham responded to a question, and there were several points where Denham remained silent as he waited for the disruption to die down.
"I'm willing to stay here as long as the supervisor and everybody will allow us to stay here, as long as we're respectful," said Denham as his opening remarks were met with boos. "I want to answer every question."
The town hall came after months of criticism that the congressman has not been approachable enough and demanded a face-to-face question and answer session. Even after the event was announced in March, opposition groups still had issues with the format of writing questions on index cards and pre-approved by Denham's staff, and accusations that the Denair location was meant to discourage attendance. Denham said the venue was moved from its original location of Stanislaus State to the larger banquet hall in order to accommodate a bigger crowd.
In an interview before the event, Denham said that he tries to be as accessible to his constituents as possible, whether it be through his mobile district office hours, meetings at his Modesto office or even speaking with residents at parades. The town hall was not scheduled in response to protests, he said.
"Normally, my philosophy has always been you wait until March or so when bills are being introduced so you actually have something to talk about," said Denham.
"We're not trying to silence anybody. I'm meeting with everybody all the time, as I have every year. Nothing has changed."
Denham was not the only elected official on stage at the town hall. Assemblyman Heath Flora, Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth and Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa attended, but seldom spoke as a majority of the night's questions were aimed at Denham. Flora felt the force of the crowd when the first question of the night regarding free college tuition was directed at him, however, and Soiseth earned the support of the crowd, drawing cheers with several of his remarks regarding refugees and the LGBTQ community and even receiving calls of, "Run for Congress."
On healthcare, Denham focused the conversation on the lack of access to medical care in the Valley and included his plans to combat the shortage of doctors by expanding local residency programs. His remarks were met with light applause, though many still called on him to make healthcare more affordable and to "tax the rich," as one constituent yelled.
Two of the loudest moments came when the conversation turned to both climate change and the federal investigation into Russia's election collusion.
After trying to answer the question of whether or not he believed in climate change in a roundabout way, the crowd chanted, "Yes or no!" over and over again until Denham was forced to give his position.
"Yes, I believe in climate change," said Denham - a statement which earned the only cheers of the night that were directed toward the congressman. He assured the crowd that they could trust him to use the best science available when it comes to the environment, but they disapproved of his support of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.
"I'm looking for policies that address all aspects of clean energy - solar and wind, but I believe hydro should be a green energy as well," said Denham.
Denham was questioned about investigating Russian hacking claims and said that a bi-partisan investigative committee is currently underway in the House and Senate, and that the FBI is doing their own investigation. The crowd, however, called for an independent investigation into the matter.
"If you're hacking into our system, if you're trying to manipulate elections, then yes, we need to hold whatever country it is accountable," said Denham.
Despite the raucous behavior from the crowd and his clear frustration at being interrupted with boos throughout the event, Denham ended the night with words of appreciation for his constituents.
"I want to thank you for allowing us to have a civil discussion and giving us an opportunity to actually answer questions," he said.