LaMalfa takes a licking

Congressman rolls with verbal punches, jabs back at town hall meeting

Ann Sisney, holding a picture of her son who died of an opioid overdose, criticizes the GOP’s health care plan for cutting treatment for addiction.

Ann Sisney, holding a picture of her son who died of an opioid overdose, criticizes the GOP’s health care plan for cutting treatment for addiction.

Photo by Jordan Rodrigues

If Rep. Doug LaMalfa were to take the advice of several people who spoke at Monday’s (Aug. 7) town hall meeting in Chico and resign from his job immediately, he might find a second career in the world of professional wrestling.

The Republican congressman, who stands well over 6 feet tall and looks every bit the rice-fed farm boy he proudly claims to be, doesn’t just fit the bill physically; on Monday, he seemed to relish playing the role of the heel—the bad-guy wrestler crowds love to hate. Not only did he appear unaffected by the boos and jeers that rained down upon him from many of the roughly 400 constituents who attended the 8 a.m. meeting at Manzanita Place, but he also repeatedly loosed comments that served no other purpose than to stir the ire of his detractors.

Most of the crowd seemed to be there to express opposition to his stated positions on health care, the environment, immigration and other issues, and LaMalfa assumed a combative stance from the outset. As people shouted their concerns that his lengthy preamble was cutting into the hour allotted for questions and comments, LaMalfa warned people to be respectful “if we want to do any more [town halls].”

“I’ve got the mic, folks,” he said as the crowd reacted to his chiding by booing and waving red sheets of paper meant to express disapproval (most reserved their green sheets for LaMalfa’s critics). “Yeah, go ahead and boo away.”

LaMalfa’s jabs continued throughout the event, each time invoking a chorus of derision. After Dan Everhart of Chico spoke about growing economic inequality and asked the congressman why he’s supported cuts to social services and tax breaks for the rich, LaMalfa said, “Those are great talking points you got off the Internet somewhere.” When another man spoke about a lack of affordable housing, LaMalfa pivoted to comment on environmental protections: “The high cost of land and only being able to use a little bit of it because of a fairy shrimp or something—that’s what drives the cost of housing.” And when a woman questioned LaMalfa’s repeated assertions that humanity plays no role in climate change, he said, “I agree … mankind is preventing us from doing forest management that keeps our forests from burning all summer.”

Health care—and specifically LaMalfa’s support of the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act—was by far the most frequently raised issue at the town hall. The first public comment came from a Chico woman, Ann Sisney, who held up a picture of her son William, who died of an opioid overdose in 2015.

“The health care you voted for, the AHCA, would discontinue health insurance [for many people],” said Sisney, on the verge of tears. “It would dramatically increase premiums for people over 50, but probably the scariest thing is it strips away essential benefits, preventative care, drug treatment and mental health treatment.

Crowd members hold up red cards to express disagreement with Rep. Doug LaMalfa.

Photo by Ken Smith

“I want you to know these are life-and-death decisions you are making.”

Though LaMalfa stood by his support of the AHCA and repeated his criticisms of the cost and “lack of choice” under the ACA, he acknowledged that the AHCA passed by the House of Representatives “wouldn’t be the be-all, end-all.” He said the bill was rushed in an effort to allow the Senate’s attempt to pass a health care bill during the budget reconciliation process, during which the panel needed only a simple majority (51 votes) rather than a three-fifths vote (60 votes) to pass the legislation. (It received just 49 yeas.) He also said the AHCA was part of a three-phase plan that included giving broader power to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and further legislation to allow health insurance sales across state lines.

LaMalfa also criticized a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report released in May that said the AHCA, as proposed by the House, would raise premiums by 20 percent by 2019 and lead to 23 million uninsured Americans by 2026. He suggested that 17 million of those people would be uninsured by choice: “They don’t want that health care, they’re being forced into it,” he said.

“There’s a lot of misperception about this,” he continued. “We really want to give choices back to the people and we need to get government out of the way. We all like choices, right?”

LaMalfa was criticized because his family’s farming operation accepted $5.3 million in rice subsidies in a 20-year period while he supported cuts to food stamps for 2 million Americans in the 2014 Farm Bill; for his stance against abortion and for his perceived allegiance to President Trump. Altogether, with dozens of people offering comments and questions, only one of the speakers praised LaMalfa, saying he supported the congressman and lamented the level of discord in political discourse.

After the meeting, Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl, whose district includes parts of Chico and who attended the town hall, shared similar comments.

“It took some guts to get up there in what was sure to be a hostile crowd, he said. “He and I don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on a lot of things when it comes to Republican values.

“I wish people would have been a little more respectful and let him talk. All the yelling and carrying on just because they don’t agree with what he says … I don’t think any of that helps.”

Everhart, the man LaMalfa accused of cribbing his talking points from the Internet, had a much different takeaway: “He didn’t seem to take any questions very seriously and, perhaps encouraged by Trump’s example, doesn’t mind being a bully,” he told the CN&R. “Overall, he seemed only marginally engaged and confident in the Republican majority he enjoys in this congressional district.

“You have to wonder why he even bothered facing this predictably hostile crowd. Maybe he just wanted to slap his opponents around a little.”