Harris, a three-term congressman and a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, faced taunts and jeers from members of the crowd at Chesapeake College over a wide range of issues including the Affordable Care Act, border security and funding for Planned Parenthood — all central to President Donald Trump’s first months in office.
The opening moments of the event forecast a tough room. Harris took the stage and began to tick through a presentation by way of introduction. He only made it three minutes before the crowd erupted with a vengeance.
“If you take time doing this, it’s less time for questions,” Harris told the raucous crowd as he attempted to continue. Then, he stopped altogether, waiting for the crowd to quiet. And so it went for more than an hour.
Elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave, Harris is the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation. He is hardly the first Washington lawmaker to face the fury of constituents back home since the inauguration similar scenes have played out at gatherings across the country, with progressive activists organizing to show up, vocally and in droves.
But Friday’s town hall was held one week to the day from when House Republican leaders pulled legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act from consideration on the House floor, a major defeat for Trump.
Harris was one a slew of Republicans expected to vote no on the measure before GOP leadership pulled it from consideration.
When Harris declared that the best course of action for health care was to “turn over as much as possible to the state,” the crowd booed.
He also called it an “inconvenient truth” that outcomes for people on Medicaid are no better than for those without. “We need to turn it back to the states so the states make the decisions on what’s best for their patients.”
At times during Friday’s town hall, Harris seemed to push headstrong into the resistance, on occasion challenging individuals in the crowd who opposed him.
Near the beginning of the event, one man near the center of the auditorium stood and shouted back at Harris.
“Sir, you have to stay seated. The college has the rules,” Harris said.
Later, Harris suggested that another woman would face removal from the event if she “yelled one more time like that.”
In other moments, he seemed less gamely and stood on stage silently, at times leaning on the podium, waiting out the crowd.
Harris faced a series of pointed questions about his views on the President and Trump administration policies, as well as on Russia’s role in US affairs.
Should Trump release his tax returns? “Sure,” Harris said, but with a caveat:
“It was up to the voters of America to decide if that was important. And you know what,” he asked, with a shrug and a smile as the crowd roared.
What about the signature wall that Trump wants to build to secure the southern border with Mexico?
“Most Americans,” Harris said, “actually want a secure border.” He eschewed the term wall, and instead used the term “well-constructed barrier.”
“No wall,” many in the crowd chanted repeatedly, several holding up red sheets of paper to show disagreement, and with Eastern Shore zip codes printed on them to indicate the attendees were locals..
He did not stake out a position on whether there should be an independent investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the US election or whether the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, should recuse himself from the committee’s investigation.
Of the impartiality of an investigation, Harris said he wanted to wait and see what the House inquiry found. Of Nunes, he said he “didn’t have enough information” or the appropriate security clearance to obtain it.
Harris was also questioned, albeit indirectly, about the tensions between the factions of the House Republican conference.
Was Harris, a moderator asked, considering replacing House Speaker Paul Ryan?
“Not at this time,” Harris replied.