- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett did Sunday what his five Republican House colleagues who represent parts of Austin have not done since Donald Trump became president: He held a live town hall with his constituents.
The Austin Democrat’s meeting at Huston-Tillotson University’s Mary E. Branch Gymnasium was wrapped within a citywide gathering of some 700 supporters of Indivisible — a national anti-Trump network with Austin origins — that guaranteed Doggett’s jabs at the president would be greeted with foot-stomping affirmation.
“My whole message can be summed up in one word,” Doggett said at the outset. “Resist.”
He said the capacity turnout, and the wildfire success of Indivisible — or what he said some of his colleagues in Congress refer to as “Indigestible” — offered him hope amid “one of the most troubling times I’ve been through.”
“You’re having an effect,” Doggett said.
He said the resistance to the president must move beyond marching, protesting and tweeting to organizing and registering voters block by block.
“The real hard work is reaching out, knocking on the doors of every newcomer in your neighborhood,” he said.
Doggett reminded the Austin crowd that Travis County is surrounded by Trump country and said Democrats can’t win in Texas without appealing to at least “some of the people who voted for Trump as a shortcut to change.”
The objective, he said, is not to shame Trump voters, but to persuade some of them.
Despite the fact that the town hall was held at a historically black college in an East Austin neighborhood that used to be the heart of Austin’s black community, the crowd at Sunday’s event was not any less overwhelmingly white than the March 4 Trump that brought some 300 supporters of the president out to the Capitol on a rainy Saturday.
Noah Masterson, a spokesman for Indivisible Austin, said they are well aware of that and are working on it.
In a Q&A with reporters, Doggett said the six congressional districts that include slices of Austin are so gerrymandered to undermine the city’s power that it would be “very uphill” to defeat any the five Republicans in 2018, but that Trump is dragging the country “downhill” at such a pace that it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
Doggett said that while he lives within a few blocks of Huston-Tillotson, the gym where the town hall was held is in the district of U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, an Austin Republican whose views are diametrically opposite his.
In the absence of town hall meetings by the Republican members of Congress in the area, Indivisible groups held their own town halls in each of the districts during the week of the President’s Day congressional break, and the absent congressmen were represented by a cardboard cutout or an empty chair. The cardboard versions of Williams and U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, were at Sunday’s event.
Doggett renewed his call for an independent prosecutor or bipartisan citizens’ commission to look into the election ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. He said it was OK with him if the mandate for that investigation included what he considers the outlandish charge, made by the president in a series of tweets Saturday, that President Barack Obama ordered Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign.
“If they want to throw in those outrageous assertions that President Obama did something he doesn’t have the power to do, that’s fine with me,” Doggett said.
Doggett joked with the crowd that Democrats in Congress might have been asking the wrong question. “It should be who in the Trump administration didn’t have contact with the Russians,” he said.
Doggett said the answer to Trump’s Russia ties might lie in his tax returns, which, unlike his predecessors, he has refused to release. Doggett, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, has sought without success to force the release of Trump’s returns, and he said, “We are going to stay after this issue.”
Doggett warned that Republicans in Congress, fueled by “fear, fantasy and fanaticism,” will push this week to repeal Obamacare, though they have refused so far to let anyone read their replacement plan.
Doggett’s town hall lasted for an hour in the gym, and then when the Indivisible program resumed, Doggett met for another hour outside with constituents who still had questions.
Indivisible began late last year with a guide to activism to thwart the Trump agenda prepared by former congressional staffers, led by Doggett alumni. There were, as of the end of last week, 5,801 verified Indivisible groups nationally, including at least two in every congressional district.