By: Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
WAUWATOSA - Jim Sensenbrenner represents a very Republican seat in Congress.
But when he held a town hall meeting in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa earlier this month, he was visiting the most “anti-Trump” community in his district.
The result was a snapshot of our polarized times amid an exploding uproar over the presidency. The senior lawmaker in his final term met with a mix of pats on the back for his decades of service, respectful pushback on his politics, and exasperated epithets for his support of Donald Trump.
One Democrat in the audience complained that Trump “sees himself as above the law.”
“When will you be ready to say you’ve seen enough, and he has to go?” asked Chris Rockwood, who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Sensenbrenner in 2014.
“I’m not ready to say that. I support him in the 2020 election,” said the 76-year-old Republican, adding moments later:
“I like to spend my time on things that can … accomplish something. … Now Donald Trump has a 94% approval rating among Republicans. What you’re suggesting I do is waste my time (opposing Trump) so you can quote me in a general election campaign,” Sensenbrenner said. “I am not going to do that, Chris.”
That exchange in Wauwatosa took place a few days before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, records of a phone call confirmed that Trump asked the leader of Ukraine to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden, and the government released the whistleblower complaint that triggered the Ukraine controversy that has consumed Washington.
Sensenbrenner has defended the president since then, as he did at his Sept. 21 Wauwatosa town hall, where he argued that Trump didn’t offer a “quid pro quo” to Ukraine for the information he wanted and therefore “did nothing wrong.”
Two listeners disliked his answers on Ukraine so much they walked out. One muttered “bulls***t” as she left. A man who hadn’t been called on interrupted Sensenbrenner — a huge no-no for the procedurally strict congressman — and yelled, “You’re not answering (the) question!”
Sensenbrenner, who precedes every town hall by reciting lengthy rules of decorum, said: “You heard what the rules are. Now either sit down or please leave the room.”
When the man said, “I’ll do neither,” he was rebuked by another member of the audience for speaking out of turn. Sensenbrenner threatened to gavel the meeting to a close.
“Fine. I’ll leave, Jim, but answer (the) question (that was) asked, not the one you hear in your head!” he said, muttering “a**hole” as he left. Sensenbrenner suggested he pick up a copy of “Miss Manners” on his way out.
Though it teetered a bit, the Wauwatosa town hall didn't degenerate into a full-blown partisan shouting match.
In fact, some of Sensenbrenner’s Democratic constituents made a point of prefacing their policy disagreements with respectful nods to his long tenure and the regular listening sessions he holds. Sensenbrenner typically invites local state legislators to these events. In this case, it was Democrat Robyn Vining, which lent a bipartisan aura to the meeting.
Was the town hall in Tosa more remarkable for its outbreaks of tension or its fragile civility?
Or just the fact that it happened at all?
Fewer and fewer members of Congress conduct town halls. And the trend toward increasingly one-sided districts makes it that much more unlikely that lawmakers will ever field questions from a room full of people who disagree with them.
But Wauwatosa voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton by 22 points in 2016, while Sensenbrenner’s district overall voted for Trump by 20 points.
Asked in an interview about his most contentious town halls, Sensenbrenner said, “I’ve gaveled things closed because of a near riot breaking out a couple of times — two in this room.” He was referring to the Wauwatosa Public Library. (One of those stormy meetings occurred during the recall fight over former GOP Gov. Scott Walker).
A town hall meeting just a few days before Wauwatosa’s had ended prematurely, even though it was on friendly Republican turf in the town of Delafield.
“Thank you for all of your service. Thank you also for so many town hall meetings,” said Phyllis Warden of Delafield. “I’m sorry that with your retirement, the legislative consciousness you have, that historical perspective, is going to be lost to all of us.”
One constituent asked Sensenbrenner how people can fight the “resistance (Democrats) are giving our president.”
Sensenbrenner echoed his complaint and said of Trump: “I agree with probably 90% of what he has done. I probably agree with about 30% of the way he said it. (But) everybody knew what his personality was in 2016, and they voted for him anyhow.”
Then the congressman called on a man named Jerry Lee, who was not a Republican and who complained that the United States wasn’t a republic because its representatives didn’t listen to the people.
Sensenbrenner interjected, “You elect us!” and asked him, “If you don’t like this (system), what’s better?”
Lee replied that gerrymandering made Congress undemocratic.
“So, don’t give me that crap!” said Lee, and “Don’t interrupt me. I didn’t finish.”
Sensenbrenner said: “I won’t give you any more. I am going to adjourn this portion of the meeting. I don’t like to be cussed at, at these meetings.”
Down came the gavel in Delafield.
Sensenbrenner told a reporter he wished more of his colleagues held in-person listening sessions in their districts as opposed to telephone town halls where, “like talk radio, a call screener decides who gets to talk to the congressman.”
He plans to keep holding them until he retires in January 2021 after 42 years in the House.
“I don’t think I should be running away from my constituents during the last 15 months,” he said.
His town hall in Wauwatosa drew Republicans as well as Democrats. Two constituents thanked him for supporting gun rights, while others urged him to support restrictions like an assault weapons ban.
While guns and climate change sparked debate, Trump was easily the most divisive topic. A woman thanked Sensenbrenner for supporting Trump. A man told him that Trump was shredding values that Sensenbrenner extols such as civility and rule of law.
“When are you going to publicly stand up to a very unfit person?” said the constituent, Bob Kinosian.
Sensenbrenner said he opposed Trump on tariffs and his use of an emergency declaration to fund the border wall, but accused Democrats of blanket intransigence, calling it “disgusting.”
“You’ve had a very long and distinguished career … we all appreciate you continue to hold these town hall meetings,” said Rockwood, the Wauwatosa man who ran against Sensenbrenner five years ago.
But during a long back-and-forth, Rockwood told Sensenbrenner, “You and your fellow Republicans have traded your party’s conscience for two Supreme Court justices and a tax cut,” and urged him and other party elders to recruit a GOP challenger against Trump.
The two clashed in a fairly civil fashion over the Ukraine controversy and Democratic oversight of the president, which was when two audience members fuming over Sensenbrenner’s answers walked out.
Rockwood, a lifelong Democrat who was wearing a button supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president, expressed mixed feelings about his Republican representative in an interview afterward.
“I make a point of disagreeing without being disagreeable (with Sensenbrenner) … but we just can’t get a good answer out of him,” said Rockwood.
“My fear is that his successor will be even worse. … He’s not all bad on the issues. And he’s come from an era when bipartisanship existed. Now I wish he’d be more upset about the demise of that era rather than just following in line with Republican leadership,” he said.
There was one thing the Democrats and Republicans interviewed at the town hall meetings in Delafield and Wauwatosa agreed on — that they would like to see whoever succeeds Sensenbrenner maintain the tradition of taking live questions, in person, from constituents at open meetings in communities across the district.
If it's not too much to ask.