Sen. Johnny Isakson met with a largely unfriendly crowd on Aug. 14 in the first in-person town hall the Republican senator has held this year.
Town hall meetings have dwindled to a rarity among Republican lawmakers, and Georgia constituents used the infrequent opportunity to voice their complaints against the Trump administration and the GOP’s legislative agenda. Both Isakson and his Georgia colleague, David Perdue, have been criticized for their apparent unwillingness to meet with constituents in person, with Isakson preferring to host more easily-controlled telephone town halls.
The dissent started before Isakson even took the stage. Audience members set the mood for the evening’s meeting by booing KSU President Sam Olens’ announcement that signs would not be permitted into the meeting, and many constituents in the audience also laughed at the mention of Isakson serving on the Senate Ethics Committee.
Isakson diffused tensions with his condemnation of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“There is no place for the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, racists,” Isakson said. “We may have differences over lots of things, but there’s never going to be a difference over human dignity, the right to life, and the right to live in the freest, greatest country on the face of this earth without fear of intimidation because of your race, your religion, your sex, your national origin, or any other discriminatory factors.”
When asked about what he thought of Trump’s delayed response to Charlottesville, he refused to comment, saying he would not criticize any of his colleagues’ decisions.
The hostility picked up again when Isakson attempted to explain his vote in favor of four separate bills that would have repealed and replaced the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid funding by over $700 billion. According to one constituent, these votes conflicted with a claim he made during a telephone town hall in July, in which he professed a commitment to protecting disabled Georgians.
“I live in fear over this, Senator Isakson,” the constituent said. “I’m losing sleep over it.”
Isakson later told audience members that he understands their concerns because he himself is disabled, having recently had back surgery and now walking with a cane.
Another of his constituents expressed concern over President Donald Trump’s “dangerous rhetoric” regarding North Korea, saying the country’s goal should be de-escalation and diplomacy. She asked Isakson how he and his colleagues would work toward de-escalation and how they can ensure President Trump will come to Congress first with any plans for military operation against North Korea.
“I support the Congress having a say-so,” Isakson answered. “They do have a say-so, but the President does have the law of the land under the Constitution to have the ability to deploy the military.”
When pressured by crowd members to say, “Black lives matter” in response to a question about police brutality, Isakson answered: “All lives matter,” drawing swift retribution from the crowd.
Among the handful of KSU students present was Blake Howe, a sophomore Information Technology major who attended the town hall to ask Isakson whether he would support a comprehensive civil rights act to protect all minorities from discrimination. The question, like most of the questions posed to the senator, was met with raucous applause.
“There are no federal or state laws that prevent my boss from firing me tomorrow for being gay,” Howe said. “I’ve had my fair share of discrimination throughout my entire life, and we need a comprehensive civil rights act.”
Isakson’s answer to the question — that he believed in the equitable treatment of all Americans and that he would support any legislation that would apply equally to all citizens — did not entirely satisfy Howe.
“I honestly still feel like I have a lot of the same questions I had when I walked in,” Howe later said.
When asked about his stance on climate change, Isakson said, “You only have to watch the weather to see how often the climate changes,” eliciting a thunderous chorus of boos.
Justin Kelly, a junior political science major who questioned the senator about the federal budget, said he believes the hostility is not representative of Isakson’s level of support.
“People who support him don’t feel like they need a voice,” Kelly said.
Those who didn’t support the senator, though, made their voices heard, chanting, “Shame, shame, shame,” as Isakson left the stage.
Sabrina Kearns contributed to this article.