Town hall meeting draws more than 400 people in East Austin

Updated May 13, 2017
Audience members raise their hands when asked by the moderator if they have tried to contact U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, during the District 25 town hall at Huston-Tillotson University on Saturday.

An organizer for a town hall meeting Saturday in East Austin told a crowd of more than 400 people that U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, a no-show at the event, won’t come to talk to his Austin constituents until they force him to do it.

“He doesn’t have to care what we say until we make him care,” said Lauren Russo. “We need to get out the vote in a way we haven’t done before.”

Williams, R-Austin, has not held a town hall in Austin this year. His district stretches from Austin to near Fort Worth.

A group of volunteers with Indivisible — a national network of activists dedicated to using tea party tactics to undermine President Donald Trump’s policies — put together the event at Huston-Tillotson University on Saturday. Indivisible has targeted Republican representatives, including U.S. Rep. John Carter of Round Rock, in the Austin area this year in a series of similar town hall meetings.

Organizers put a twist on Saturday’s event by hosting a panel of nonpartisan policy experts to answer questions on civil rights, immigration, education, gerrymandering, health care, criminal justice reform and other issues that affect those living in Texas Congressional District 25.

“A lot of Roger Williams’ responses about why he doesn’t do town halls is because they are just full of lunatic fringe people yelling,” Russo said. “Some of us here are not.”

For more than an hour, people in the audience stood quietly in line to pose questions to the panel. They first addressed their questions to Toni Hunter, an activist who organizers had stand in for Williams. She replied using information from his past public statements and his voting record.

A man named Omar — who declined to provide his last name — got loud applause from the audience when he said he was a practicing Muslim and wanted to know if Williams would come to an open house at the largest mosque in Austin.

Hunter — acting as Williams — turned down the invitation.

A member of the panel — University of Texas associate professor of public affairs Josh Busby — then said Williams had said on television he was in favor of the travel ban that Trump enacted against a number of Muslim countries.

Other members of the audience asked the panel questions about the proposed rewrite of the Affordable Care Act, including how people with pre-existing health conditions would be able to afford insurance. The panel also talked about the proposed border wall.

Zenen Jaimes Perez, who works for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said many landowners don’t know they have the right to oppose the amount of money the federal government may offer to condemn their land for the wall. He said there were cases in which federal offers went from $1,000 all the way to $56,000 an acre when people declined the government’s initial offer. Driving up the price of the land could raise questions about building the wall since the price of the construction would be increased, Jaimes Perez said.

Williams’ spokesman, Vince Zito, responded to a request for comment via Facebook about Saturday’s town hall meeting with a statement:

“Congressman Williams believes in listening to his district and in doing so spends as much time as possible meeting with constituents and groups throughout his district. Congressman Williams will always humbly listen to the thoughts and concerns of all of his constituents – he always has and always will.”