About 30 minutes into last week’s event at Clover Hill Assembly of God, a dark-haired woman who appeared to be in her early 20s stood from her seat and raised both hands with middle fingers extended.
“F— you, Brat!” she yelled toward the front of the cavernous auditorium, where the second-term congressman sat with Chase, a state senator, and Circuit Court Clerk Wendy Hughes. “F— you!”
Despite Chase’s familiarity with the venue – she and her family are members of the Chesterfield church – there would be no home-field advantage for any of the three Republican officials.
A total of 750 tickets were made available online for the free event, which was held less than a week after the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed the controversial American Health Care Act. All tickets were claimed in less than eight hours, Chase said.
An informal show-of-hands poll conducted by Brat at the start of the meeting indicated that the vast majority of attendees had supported either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Additional questioning by the congressman revealed that most in the audience favored both higher taxes and more government regulation.
Despite being loudly booed, jeered and interrupted throughout the 90-minute event, Brat told the Observer during a subsequent telephone interview that the crowd’s behavior didn’t bother him. Instead, he seized on those initial responses and attempted to draw a broader inference about the nature of his opposition.
“When I was growing up, Democrats were your neighbors,” Brat said. “Those weren’t [mainstream] Democrats you saw the other night. They want big government. They mocked the preacher and booed the prayer. That was the hard left.
“There’s an open question about the nature of the Democratic Party going forward. It’s a huge debate, but all the press reports is that 600 people showed up and booed Dave Brat.”
Actually, several national media outlets have run stories comparing the American left’s “resist” movement following Donald Trump’s November election to the rise of the conservative tea party eight years ago.
The similarities are striking – particularly the fact that many of the participants on both sides had never been particularly engaged politically, but became motivated out of concern about significant federal policy shifts.
The new anti-Trump effort also has borrowed the heated rhetoric and “in your face” tactics that marked the earliest tea party rallies.
“Backlash or not, the tea party was effective. They got their people into office,” said Nicole Subryan, a local nurse and member of the political advocacy group Liberal Women of Chesterfield.
Subryan, who worries about the fate of her Medicaid patients if the Republican health care bill passes the Senate in its current form, is far less concerned about who she offends with her blunt brand of political activism.
She wore a shirt to last week’s Brat-Chase town hall emblazoned on the front with the message “Hey Dave, glad to hear your erectile dysfunction isn’t a preexisting condition.”
She also made a point to walk up to the congressman and show him the shirt. She says Brat smiled and shook her hand.
“I said, ‘Hi Dave, I’m here to give you a world of trouble,’” Subryan added.
That Brat finds himself in the crosshairs of a liberal grassroots revolt is more than a little ironic when you consider that just three years ago, he rode a tidal wave of tea party frustration to upset Eric Cantor in the 7th Congressional District’s GOP primary.
Cantor, at the time the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, was considered a prohibitive favorite to eventually succeed John Boehner as Speaker. Instead, Cantor was unceremoniously dumped by voters in his own party who saw him as complicit to President Barack Obama’s expansion of federal power.
Brat, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, remains popular in the Republican-leaning 7th District because of his focus on the national debt, reining in federal spending and addressing what he says are unsustainable long-term liabilities in Social Security and Medicare.
The former Randolph-Macon College economics professor was re-elected last November with 58 percent of the vote, defeating Bon Air attorney Eileen Bedell.
On the same night that Brat celebrated his win with supporters at a Short Pump restaurant, Trump’s stunning victory over Clinton angered Democrats who had mostly ignored Brat during his first term in office.
“I think the presidential election forced our hand,” said Kim Drew Wright, founder of Liberal Women of Chesterfield. “If you can’t pick a side now, if you can’t be vocal now, when the hell can you be?”
Prior to last week’s town hall, more than 50 people left no doubt where they stand on the national health care debate.
Chrystal Doyle, founder of the 7th District Concerned Citizens Facebook group, joined leaders of Richmond Indivisible in organizing a “die in” to protest Brat’s support of the American Health Care Act.
In a press release, Doyle claimed that Brat’s vote “will have life and death consequences in his district as an estimated 49,700 constituents stand to lose insurance coverage, some of whom are children.”
Assembled on the sidewalk across Bailey Bridge Road from the church, many carrying homemade cardboard headstones and other signs, protestors chanted, “Dave Brat, care more! Dave Brat, care more!”
As a trumpeter played taps, they stopped chanting and lay quietly on the sidewalk for several minutes. Several passing motorists honked in support.
“I thought it was brilliant,” Wright said. “It was a shocking way to grab people’s attention and it’s appropriate because if people lose their health care coverage, they could die.”
The quiet, almost somber tone of the outdoor protest stood in stark contrast to the rowdy atmosphere inside the church.
At one point, a clearly frustrated Chase stood up and scolded the audience, saying if they continued to jeer and talk over the congressman, she would have them removed.
Four Chesterfield police officers were deployed outside to manage traffic at the event, and four sheriff’s deputies handled security inside the church, but nobody was forced to leave the town hall meeting.
“As Americans, even when we disagree, we should maintain a level of civility and respect,” Chase said. “I thought the venue would facilitate more discussion instead of yelling. Clearly that was not the case.
“I’m not going to cower to people in a fringe group who were trying to create chaos and shut down discussion. I want everybody to have an opportunity to be heard.”
Elizabeth Hardin, chairwoman of the Chesterfield Democratic Committee, was unable to attend the town hall because of a family medical emergency.
Informed by a reporter about the behavior of some participants, particularly those who used profanity in the church, Hardin said it’s important for Democrats to make their voices heard, but also to be aware of their surroundings and exercise appropriate decorum.
“People shouldn’t be dropping F-bombs in church,” she added. “It’s important to present your message in a way that’s persuasive. Sometimes you do have to be antagonistic, but you want to make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
In much the same manner that tea party conservatives deride members of the GOP establishment as “RINOs,” short for “Republican in Name Only,” is a clash inevitable between moderate and liberal Democrats?
Recalling Michelle Obama’s message from the 2016 presidential campaign that “when [Republicans] go low, we go high,” Subryan said there’s room in the Democratic Party for people who endorse that approach.
“There’s a place for us, too,” she said. “If we go to a gunfight with a knife, we’ve already lost.” ¦