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Inside Senator Dianne Feinstein's Raucous L.A. Town Hall

(Photos by Emma Specter)
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After Senator Dianne Feinstein’s turbulent town-hall heckling in San Francisco Monday, it’s hard to imagine she was overflowing with optimism for her Los Angeles town hall on Thursday (we like to imagine her giving herself a Jack Donaghy pep talk in the mirror immediately before taking the stage.)

Indeed, a small yet vocal clutch of protestors met Feinstein outside her town hall at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Adams on Thursday morning, waving signs reading "Single Payer For All!" ";Support Bernie's bill or retire, Feinstein!", Our Revolution activist Lauren Steiner bellowed into her megaphone, explaining that this form of public pressure at town halls pushed California reps Maxine Waters and Linda Sanchez to support Bernie Sanders' Medicare for Allplan.

Still, the town hall itself got off to a relatively subdued start, with the moderator—lawyer and CNN commentator Areva Martin—exhorting the audience, “We’ll cover more ground if everyone agrees to ask questions - not speeches, not a comments, but a question. Can I agree to get everyone to ask questions?"

Martin's plea was fruitful at the start of Feinstein's discussion, which touched on topics ranging from Russian election interference to Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program protections to the importance of preserving federal funding for Caltrain, which Feinstein described as her "number-one priority." "We had one of these town halls last week in San Francisco and it got kind of rough," Feinstein acknowledged, adding, "I thought, well, today I'm going home to First African Episcopal Methodist, which was one of the first L.A. churches I visited in my career in the Senate."

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Indeed, the town hall’s intimate, community-centric church venue may have played a role in encouraging this initial civility, with questioners selected through a lottery system reminiscent of a charity raffle, and attendees waving bright green and red “Agree” and “Disagree” cards distributed by the Los Angeles chapter of anti-Trump resistance group Indivisible.

"We've been protesting at Senator Feinstein's L.A. office since January," noted INDIVISIBLE member Tessie Borden, adding that the day's event was the product of a protest outside Feinstein's Hancock Park fundraiser in March that led the senator to come outside, talk to protestors and publicly commit to holding a town hall.

Ashley Schapitl, press secretary for Senator Feinstein, pushed back against characterizations of today's public discourse as the Senator's first in decades, noting that the Senator has frequently taken part in moderated panels such as a February event co-sponsored by the Public Policy Institute, in which Feinstein responded to audience questions submitted in advance."I would describe this as the largest town hall-style event the Senator has done," Schapitl corrected. "After the San Francisco town hall, we set up an email account for the folks who didn't get the chance to ask their questions, and overwhelmingly we were hearing from constituents saying, "I'm in my thirties, I’m in my forties, and this is the first time I’ve ever called my congressperson or attended a town hall."

This was echoed by many town-hall attendees, including Christina Garner, an L.A.-based novelist who was galvanized to get involved in local politics after the 2016 election. "I went to Adam Schiff’s town hall in January, and it was so crowded I couldn’t get in, but I stood outside in the cold anyway,” Christina recalled, noting that attendance at Feinstein’s town hall looked somewhat sparse in comparison. Aides from Feinstein’s L.A. office estimated Thursday’s town-hall head count at around 500 people.

Feinstein answered a spate of audience questions, which ranged in tone from moral/humanitarian quandaries ("What will you do to help end U.S.-sponsored bloodshed in Iraq and Syria?") to less-fraught domestic queries ("What can we, as Democrats, do to encourage more women to run for office?")

As is perhaps to be expected in any public forum, Feinstein was met with her share of vocal, frustrated hecklers; however, their choruses of "Answer the question!", "Grow a spine!" and "You're defending Trump!" were quickly quelled by the majority of the audience, and things didn't escalate to quite the level of chaos they did in San Francisco earlier this week.

Feinstein retained her composure throughout most of the town hall, praising audience members' enthusiasm and coyly addressing a question about whether she would support Congressional and Senate term limits. (At nearly 84 years old, Feinstein is on track to become the longest-serving member of the Senate—protestors, as well as publications like Fusion, have lately begun exhorting her to "Retire, Ma'am.") "I'd have no problem supporting term limits—if you can get them done, which I don't believe you can," Feinstein surmised, smiling, to scattered audience applause of the "You gotta hand it to her" variety.

Feinstein didn't begin to show signs of irritation until the end of the town hall, despite some audience members' efforts to unsettle her. (One particularly avuncular heckler did prompt a legendary shutdown from Marten, who wryly cut him off mid-yell, stating, "You can't get louder than me, sir, that's not possible.") Eventually, though, she began to lose patience, snapping "Go somewhere else to make your speech!" at a heckler—who, to be fair, to did not offer anything remotely resembling a question.

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All in all, though, audience reports about Feinstein's performance tended toward cautious positivity. "I don't need to scream the way some of these people did, but I would like to see more strength [from Feinstein], and a greater indication that she understands the Trump administration is not business as usual," remarked constituent Christina Garner, pointing to Reps. Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu as examples of Democrats who are more aligned with anti-Trump resistance. Still, Garner praised Feinstein for her years of public service and willingness to engage with L.A. constituents. This praise was grudgingly offered even from vocal opponents of many of Feinstein's policies, like Dr. Leah Garland, an environmental activist and host of an eco-justice radio show. "She didn't talk enough about water issues, but at least she addressed climate change," Garland concluded, sighing and rejoining a circle of fellow activists clustered outside FAME Church.

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