by BERRY CRAIG
Kentucky Congressman James Comer might have been expecting an ovation from doting constituents, followed by softball questions.
After all, this town hall was at the courthouse in Benton, the seat of Marshall County in deep western Kentucky. The freshman Republican won almost 72 percent of the county vote Nov. 8.
Comer represents the Bluegrass State’s conservative and mostly rural First Congressional District. But he collected merely a smattering of polite applause when, sporting studied casual dress for the homefolks–open-collar white shirt, tan trousers and shiny brown cowboy boots—he strode to the podium in an upstairs court room.
The chamber was packed. For about 90 minutes, the crowd grilled him, respectfully but firmly, mainly about the GOP’s American Health Care Act, which he favors.
Apparently, the measure, dubbed Trumpcare, was not the people’s choice. Nonetheless, Comer, from Tompkinsville, defended his support for the measure.
In March, House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill because it lacked sufficient Republican votes to pass. Every Democrat opposed the measure.
Earlier this month, the bill narrowly passed on a straight party line vote, with Comer and 216 other Republicans voting for it. Twenty GOP House members joined the Democrats in opposing the measure.
Tacked onto the legislation was a sweetener designed to win over reluctant Republicans–New Jersey GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur’s amendment which Comer said “clearly and specifically protects pre-existing conditions.”
A recent New York Times editorial posited otherwise, maintaining that the ACHA still “guts protections for people with pre-existing conditions.” The MacArthur amendment “would allow states to waive the requirement that insurers sell policies to people with prior health problems and not charge them higher rates.”
(Comer didn’t dispute suggestions from the crowd that tea party conservative Gov. Matt Bevin, who edged Comer in the 2015 GOP gubernatorial primary, would seek waivers.)
The New York Times reported that “…the chief executive of Blue Shield of California [who] said the bill ‘could return us to a time when people who were born with a birth defect or who became sick could not purchase or afford insurance.’ Republicans say they will require that states with waivers offer high-risk pools and find other ways to help treat these people. The bill offers $138 billion over 10 years to help states pay for such programs. Experts say this is far too little; Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Foundation estimates it would take at least $25 billion a year.”
Time and again, questions, not Comer’s answers, drew the applause.
The crowd cheered the loudest—punctuating their clapping with shouts and cheers—when Comer warned that if the ACHA didn’t pass, a government-funded, single-payer system would follow sooner or later.
While the crowd seemed all in for single-payer, Comer, another tea party favorite, is not. “I don’t think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Questioners included a trio of union members, one of whom, J.R. Gray, is also a retired longtime state representative whose House seatmate was Comer. Gray had been directing business representative for International Association of Machinists District Lodge 154, based in nearby Calvert City.
“I’ve never gone around wearing my religious beliefs on my shirt sleeve,” said Gray, who, after leaving the legislature was labor secretary under Gov. Steve Beshear, Bevin’s Democratic predecessor. “But I’ve tried to use what I learned in churches as a young person to guide me down through the trials and tribulations of life.”
Since birth, his son, Randy Gray, has suffered a rare and life-threatening blood disorder. Randy told Comer that without insurance he’d have to pay out of pocket about $680,000 a year for his life-sustaining medicine and equipment.
He brought to the town hall some of his medications and a pump, all to underscore his fear that the Republicans might allow insurance companies to cap the amount of money they pay out for people like him with chronic illnesses.
Referring to his middle-aged son, Gray wondered “how many will die because they don’t get the proper attention they need.” He pondered “how many millions of dollars for tax breaks are in that bill that the House passed and sent over to the Senate so that the rich can get richer.”
He pointed out that the U.S. is the only industrial country without comprehensive, government-funded health care. “Why is it that the United States is the number one spender for health care but when it comes to actual health care delivery…why is it that we rank near the bottom?”
Gray, who was frequently interrupted by applause, turned to President Trump. He didn’t pull punches. Gray called the president a “pathological liar” who “has absolutely no respect for women.”
The crowd cheered and applauded.
He urged Comer, a Baptist, “to follow Jesus” and “look out for the downtrodden and the hungry. And one of the greatest things Jesus did was when he kicked the money changers out of the temple. We’ve got a lot of money changers in Washington, D.C., and in Frankfort.”
Gray poured it on the president, to the delight of most of the crowd. “You cannot believe anything that the man says. If you look at him when he is talking and his lips are moving, you know he is lying.”
Gray also questioned the Republican Senate special working group Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky chose to write the upper chamber’s version of the AHCA. “Guess how many women?” he asked, answering, “none.”
Still, the group is all white. “God loves all of his children, and it’s a sad commentary when there is no one of color on that committee,” Gray said.
When Comer said the lack of diversity on the panel was “a credible spin,” the crowd collectively hooted at his use of the term “spin.”
Gray wrapped up by saying “Comrade Trump, Comrade Comey and Comrade Putin” have been involved in “a lot of crooked deals.”
(Comer said he supported Trump’s call to fire the FBI director, prompting a man in the crowd to mutter “If Trump had decided not to fire Comey, Comer would have backed Trump.”)
Comer said he appreciated Gray’s remarks. He said he had “a lot of respect” for the former lawmaker and “learned a lot” from him.
After Gray spoke, Shane Stevenson of Paducah-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 816, asked Comer why he was a “100 percent” supporter of “right to work.” When Comer ran for governor, he said his first priority in office would be coaxing the legislature to approve a RTW law.
Bevin, who was elected, also championed RTW, which the GOP-majority General Assembly passed shortly after the 2017 session started.
Comer replied to Stevenson by saying he’d visited union plants and was for good jobs.
Jerry Sykes, a United Auto Workers retiree, told Comer he was at the congressman’s Paducah town hall, which was on the day the House was supposed to vote on the first edition AHCA. Comer spoke by TV hookup from Washington, where he was set to vote yes.
“The question was brought up from the floor, ‘Are you a representative of your constituents or are you a person that votes the party line?’” Sykes said, reminding Comer of his televised response that he put constituents first.
Sykes said that at the time, polls showed that only 17 percent of the public supported Trumpcare, yet, “you let us know that day that you were waiting to go to the floor and vote yes on that bill.”
Sykes said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget office estimated that 24 million people with pre-existing conditions faced the loss of their healthcare (in 2026). Writing in The Atlantic, Vann R. Newkirk II argued that the amended bill is worse than the first version.
“Indeed, for all the talk on the Hill and the renewed energy behind Republican health reform, the goal of changes like the MacArthur amendment seems not to pass a workable nationwide law, but to provide some narrow political victories,” he maintained. “Its construction suggests that Republicans still don’t have an Obamacare replacement that can satiate the appetite for repeal on the right without simply taking coverage away from millions of Americans. While anything is still possible in the House and Senate, actually fixing health care still seems beyond reach for Republicans right now.”
Sykes noted that the Republicans rushed the amended AHCA through before the CBO had a chance to score it. “Were you afraid to see what this might cost the American people?” he asked. ”Or were you trying to take care of Trump’s 100-day agenda?”
Comer repeated his claim that the House-passed bill is sound, and he insisted that he didn’t just toe the party line. Comer claimed that if people looked at his “total voting record,” they’d see he puts constituents above party.
The FiveThirtyEight website, “Tracking Congress In The Age Of Trump: An updating tally of how often every member of the House and the Senate votes with or against the president,” shows that thus far, Comer has voted “in line with Trump’s position” on legislation 100 percent of the time.
One of the last questioners challenged Comer to try to live on a minimum wage salary for three months. When the congressman joked that he probably could but that his wife couldn’t, the crowd jeered, booed and some people shouted “sexist!”
If Comer hoped to win over the crowd, he evidently failed.
Chuck Paisley, who belongs to Paducah Laborers Local 1214, “came out to see how this bill will affect me. I’m 62 years old.” He showed up skeptical of Trumpcare and left still uneasy about the measure.
Comer failed to sway Jeff Wiggins, president of the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, also in Paducah. “He’s a cookie cutter for Donald Trump,” said Wiggins, president of Steelworkers Local 9447 and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board, too. “Comer has voted for everything Trump wants.”
Unconvinced, too, was Jennifer Morrison, a political science professor at Murray State University.
“The Republicans are saying that we’re protesting because we are paid protestors,” she said, vowing that nobody paid her to show up at Comer’s town hall.
Morrison found the congressman condescending and patronizing and doubted he really cared what the crowd had to say.
She said that instead of asking his staffers in the room to write down people’s concerns and promising to “look into it and get a response back to you,” Comer “’mansplained’ everything like we’re all reading something different than what he has.”
She said she had read the Trumpcare bill.
Morrison also took offense at Comer’s description of Randy Gray’s plea as a “story.” In addition, she was rankled when Comer also called Jennifer Smith’s account of her lengthy struggle against breast cancer a “story.” (Smith, from Paducah, spoke in support of single-payer.)
“It’s not their ‘story;’ it’s their life,” Morrison said.
Before the town hall, about a dozen members of the Pennyroyal Indivisible group, a branch of the national organization, staged a “die-in” on the courthouse lawn. Women, some of them in dresses smeared with fake blood, sprawled on the grass, their heads next to makeshift cardboard and wooden tombstones.
Also before the town hall, Comer went on a radio station in Mayfield and said “a lot of the people” at his town halls, especially in the westerly part of his district were “the same 15 or 20 women” from a “little ‘Indivisible group,’ a little what they call a resistance group, anti-Trump group… They’re always talking about conspiracy theories and fussing…”
Smith belongs to Four Rivers Indivisible. She and Four Rivers member Charlotte Goddard, who also attended the town hall, weren’t sure if Comer meant their group or Pennyroyal Indivisible.
“I’m not a little Indivisible person,” Smith smiled and said before Comer arrived at the town hall. “I’m a constituent.”
She said members of congress are supposed to represent everybody back home, not just people who vote for them.
Smith didn’t vote for Comer. “People are going to disagree with him, and I’m going to be respectful of him, but he needs to be respectful and not be demeaning against people who are against him.”
Goddard didn’t vote for the congressman either. She said his radio remarks were “very condescending. The fact that he called us a small group is misleading because the resistance is larger than what he is implying. People are upset. They are angry about health care; they are angry about corruption in government, and we are making ourselves known and our voices heard. This is our First Amendment right.”