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Utah Constituents Say They Weren't Paid To Protest Chaffetz


You've been hearing all about these raucous town hall meetings happening around the country. Voters have been confronting their lawmakers for weeks now. We're going to hear from three of them who spoke with Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: They are people who had a word with their congressman in Utah.


INSKEEP: The words some had for Republican Jason Chaffetz was boo. This was the sound as he walked on stage before he even spoke. Afterward, the congressman told a Utah newspaper he thought that such rude voters were part of a, quote, "concerted effort" to just cause chaos. He said people were paid to come from out of state. It's a familiar allegation. Some Democrats said the same thing about tea party protesters years ago. Congressman Chaffetz later softened his accusation, and we found three people who were in his crowd to learn who they really were and what motivated them.

ANNE BRADSHAW: My name's Anne Bradshaw (ph), and I'm from Sandy, Utah.

MATTHEW HOGAN: My name is Matthew Hogan (ph). I am from Vineyard, Utah.

BRADSHAW: I am a stay-at-home mom. I have three kids.

HOGAN: I am a stay-at-home dad.

INSKEEP: Bradshaw and Hogan are Democrats who voted against Congressman Chaffetz last November. The overflow crowd at the town hall meeting also included a Republican who says she voted for Congressman Chaffetz.

JUSTINE DORDIN: I'm Justine Dordin (ph). I'm a 45-year-old mom from Provo, Utah.

INSKEEP: For the record, we checked, and all three are residents of the 3rd district of Utah, which means they are the congressman's constituents, and none said they were paid to show up. Hogan says he actively supported Bernie Sanders the past couple of years while Republican Justine Dordin says she's completely new to participating in politics.

DORDIN: It was actually really fun. I've never done anything like that before in my life. We packed up our car. My husband came, and one of my friends brought a little baby, and we hauled our car full of soccer moms up to Salt Lake.

INSKEEP: All those soccer moms, she said, were her neighbors in Congressman Chaffetz's district. The town hall meeting was also a new experience for Anne Bradshaw who said she went hoping to hear the views of people who differ from her.

BRADSHAW: I wanted to feel what they were feeling, and that's why I wanted to be there. And I was surprised that there wasn't that diversity in thought. It was definitely - everyone there was upset and wanted answers.

INSKEEP: Among other things, people in the crowd said they wanted answers about the president's conflicts of interest. Chaffetz is the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which could probe the president's worldwide business enterprises. He once said if Hillary Clinton won the election, he had two years of investigations ready to go.

BRADSHAW: You know, I just feel that he needs to hold Republicans as accountable as he's held Democrats in the past, and he should stand up for and be an ethical leader in Congress.

HOGAN: Yeah. Go after Hillary Clinton. Go after her. I don't care. Please use the same vigor and courage to do the same thing to your own party's leader right now. Like, how can you not do that? It's just - how can you sit on your hands with this?

INSKEEP: Now, Chaffetz has said he will call out the president when he sees a problem. And in one case, he has criticized a member of the president's staff. He defended his course before the Utah crowd pleasing.


JASON CHAFFETZ: Let me tell you something you're really not going to like. You want to hear this. Hold on. You're really not going to like this part. The president, under the law, is exempt from the conflict of interest laws. He's exempt.


INSKEEP: Chaffetz was strictly correct, although bribery and other laws, including a clause of the Constitution, do apply according to ethics lawyers. From our interviews with participants, it appeared the crowd at this town hall meeting leaned farther left than the heavily Republican district as a whole. They were real Utah voters with specific concerns, although Anne Bradshaw says she did bring along one person who's not eligible to vote.

BRADSHAW: So I had planned all week that I was going to go. And I asked everybody in my family, my husband and my three kids, nobody wanted to go with me. And last minute, my daughter decided to tag along, and she's the 11-year-old.


BRADSHAW: And on the way there, I said to her, you better think of a question just in case. You know, you never know. You might have an opportunity to ask a question. And actually, she did have the opportunity to ask a question. She raised her hand the whole time, and he chose her, and she was able to ask him a question.

INSKEEP: I have this image of a kid, like, almost in pain with her arm in the air, holding it up with the other hand. Is that how she was?

BRADSHAW: That is exactly how she was the whole time, and I thought she had zero chance of asking a question. But she kept her hand up, and she was determined, and she definitely has a point of view, and she has concerns.


HANNAH BRADSHAW: What are you doing to help protect our water and air for our generations and my kids' generations? Do you believe in...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Keep going. Keep going.

HANNAH: Do you believe in science because I do?


INSKEEP: Video shows the congressman encouraged Hannah Bradshaw (ph) and cheerfully shook her hand and responded to her question. He said he opposed pollution but also that he favors energy from coal.


CHAFFETZ: I do support an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and I do think coal is an important part of that future.


INSKEEP: So far as you know, was the attendance organized?

HOGAN: No, there's - no.

BRADSHAW: I saw no evidence of anyone in any sort of group, from waiting in line to the people I sat by. I didn't know anybody else that was going.

HOGAN: Yeah. I actually - I knew some people that went. There were some people that I've been involved with the grassroots organizations in Utah County, and they were there. They wanted to be there to hold him accountable, and to have him pass us off as paid protesters really was just a stab to the gut.

INSKEEP: Conservative writers like Erick Erickson are urging Republicans to ignore town hall crowds like this one in Utah, and it is true that many crowds are in safe Republican districts like the one represented by Jason Chaffetz. So it's not clear yet what difference crowds at town halls could make. Yet, Republican voter Justine Dordin offered a warning.

What did you think about when you heard the congressman say that he felt he was being targeted by paid protesters?

DORDIN: I think he's smarter than that. He knows better, and I think that intellectual integrity still matters. And I think that he ignores these voices at his peril, regular, moderate voices that live in the regular, real world.

INSKEEP: This week, President Trump responded to the town hall crowds. In a tweet, he said the, quote, "so-called angry crowds" were planned out by liberal activists.


Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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