By Molly K. Hooper - 08/28/09 01:03 AM EDT
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Twenty minutes before facing a crowd of more than 3,000 people, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was introduced to a flank of plainclothes officers assigned to protect him at his town hall meeting.
The scene of McCarthy meeting privately with about two dozen city police and college security officers was a stark reminder of the precautions that have been put in place in the wake of heated town hall meetings this summer.
“We’ll be fine,” McCarthy responded, thanking them for helping out at the event.
He joked, “So if I call on you for a question, we’ll be all right?”
"Yes, sir. We'll toss you a softball," an officer responded.
McCarthy, a second-termer who replaced retired Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), is well-liked in his district, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with 60 percent of the vote last year. McCarthy was not contested in his 2008 reelection bid.
After the highly publicized shouting matches and threatening incidents at other lawmakers' town hall meetings, the Bakersfield City Police and campus security weren’t taking any chances, an officer on the scene told The Hill.
And by the end of the Wednesday event, the officers were relieved that the crowd had not become unruly.
Aside from impassioned pleas — mostly from vocal critics of Democrats’ plan on healthcare reform — the crowd was civil, respectful and appreciative that McCarthy held the open forum.
Marti Vogt, a young public school teacher who is a proponent of President Barack Obama’s health plan, was ecstatic after the town hall. She was among the 30 or so people chosen at random to ask a question.
Though her opinions triggered loud boos, she was glad to have had the opportunity to speak.
“I got booed and I loved the experience — the chance that Kevin McCarthy gave me to get a mic and tell them my views is awesome,” she said.
But a number of lawmakers have decided to forgo such meetings to avoid public showdowns.
McCarthy, 44, has been critical of his colleagues who have canceled town hall meetings.
He told a local radio station in Bakersfield on Wednesday morning that if members are too scared to face the public, then "how can you stand up in Congress and solve this problem?"
Three of McCarthy’s California Central Valley Democratic colleagues, Reps. Jerry McNerney, Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, have decided not to hold open forums, opting instead to have telephone town hall meetings.
Cardoza, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, told the editors of the Merced Sun-Star and Modesto Bee on Tuesday that he did not run for Congress to provide reporters with "fodder" of people shouting him down on camera.
"We will not achieve a consensus that's good for the American people when we are all shouting at each other," Cardoza said at the editorial board meeting, which The Hill was allowed to observe.
Even though the McCarthy town hall ended at 7:30 p.m., the chief deputy whip remained in the gym for an additional two hours to talk one on one with those whose questions he could not answer during the meeting.
Three local TV networks and several local radio stations carried the two-hour event live on air; the NBC affiliate sent a panel of anchors and politicos to host the coverage, where they perched on tall director’s chairs high-above the basketball floor at California State University of Bakersfield.
The venue for the town hall had to be changed three times because of the thousands of RSVPs McCarthy’s office received.
In a period of seven hours, the lawmaker spoke to several community groups in the day — a warm-up of sorts on the types of questions he would receive that night.
"I think that some people are coming to yell at me, some people are coming to yell about the government and a majority's just coming out to watch a fight," he told a gathering of business leaders that morning in Ridgecrest, Calif.
"When are you running for president?" one attendee shouted from the back of the room, prompting applause from the group.
McCarthy’s next town hall will occur on Sept. 2 in San Luis Obispo.