Lawmakers representing the 20th Legislative District were on defense Monday night during their first in-person town hall event in many months. There, at the Veterans Memorial Museum, constituents pushed the three Republicans on COVID-19 mandates, questioning why they weren’t doing more, interrupting them and at one point booing.
“I want to see you jumping up and down” about COVID-19 mandates, one participant told Sen. John Braun, Rep. Ed Orcutt and Rep. Peter Abbarno.
Two separate constituents — including Mackinaw’s owner Laurel Khan, who proclaimed her liquor license was revoked after refusing to comply with state health mandates — urged the lawmakers to revert to Boston Tea Party-era protests, an event precipitating the American Revolution.
But the Republicans, speaking to a drive-in crowd in addition to those listening and watching from home, generally stuck to a core message: Washington’s response to COVID-19 will only meaningfully change through legislation and the regaining of a Republican majority.
“You want me to yell louder? You want me to yell at different people? I can do that. It won’t change your situation, alright?” Braun told the crowd, adding later: “I don’t think the answer is 1776. I ask you consider that before you suggest it.”
Braun, the top Republican state senator, framed himself as more optimistic than some in the crowd about the possibility of his party regaining the majority in the Legislature. But when he said the election system “is well-run” within existing rules — some of which he disagrees with — he was met with boos and one person calling him a RINO, or “Republican In Name Only.”
Orcutt also disagreed with Khan — who was greeted with applause and said “we rip up our licenses and disrespect the government that’s disrespecting us.”
Jumping up and down, Orcutt said, “hasn’t worked. It hasn’t changed anything … I’m sorry, that’s just the facts.”
Braun said he supports what he called civil disobedience, but rebuked a frustrated crowd.
“I spent 31 years in the U.S. Navy defending the U.S. Constitution, alright? You can be mad at me if you want. But you don’t get to challenge my intentions,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for our country and for our state.”
Abbarno appealed to the passionate crowd, pointing to his recent attendance at “unmask” events and Medical Freedom Lewis County meetings held in Adna.
He added that he hates asking his children if they have their masks for school, but was interrupted by hecklers, one saying “then stop doing it.”
Orcutt urged the crowd to reach out to their friends in blue districts, highlighting his party’s need to change minds across the state in order to gain power in the Legislature. He also told constituents that his legislative work is cutting into his forestry day job.
“I’ve been working for you. I’ve been doing it at my own expense in that I don’t get to go out and do my job,” he said.
The lawmakers spent much of the evening event condemning vaccine mandates and other state requirements related to the pandemic. When one attendee brought up campaign donations by Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company manufacturing a FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, Abbarno and Braun both said the donations don’t impact their votes.
“I think my co-sponsorship of bills and my voice against vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines shows, and is actually proof, that they don’t have any say in my vote,” Abbarno said.
They also touched on the exemption process for state vaccine requirements, which now impact all state workers, health care workers and school staff. Last week, The Seattle Times reported that while vaccine exemptions are being granted by state agencies, accommodations are proving harder to secure, meaning employees could still lose their jobs.
Braun expressed uncertainty with how exemptions and accommodations will ultimately play out, adding that it’s “just insane” that exemptions would be granted, but not workplace accommodations.
“It’s amazing how up until Oct. 18, you’re all safe to teach kids in the school, vaccinated or unvaccinated. But on Oct. 19 it’s no longer safe,” Abbarno said, referring to the deadline for school staff and volunteers to be fully vaccinated against the virus.
When one participant asked about Centralia School District’s strict COVID-19 precautions and policies for staff, Abbarno responded, “I don’t think it’s right.”
The freshman lawmaker framed the district’s policies as “far in excess” of other districts and joined Orcutt in encouraging parents to contact the school board.
State officials, on the other hand, have this year tried to mitigate anger funneled at school districts following state guidance, instead asking parents to direct their concerns to the state level.
“I think this give and take is good,” Abbarno said of the lively town hall. “I think this is long overdue and I think this is also a product, a little bit, of not being able to be in person as much as we wanted to.”
Watch videos of the full town hall event at The Chronicle’s Facebook page.