Tom Cotton v. The People

Tom Cotton v. The People
Staff Photo Nick Brothers The majority of the full-house of 2,000 Arkansans who attended the Senator Tom Cotton town hall brought with them red cards to raise whenever the senator strayed off topic or said something they disagreed with.

Staff Photo Nick Brothers
The majority of the full-house of 2,000 Arkansans who attended the Senator Tom Cotton town hall brought with them red cards to raise whenever the senator strayed off topic or said something they disagreed with.

For more than an hour, a little more than 2,000 Arkansans lined up outside the Springdale High School performing arts auditorium Wednesday, Feb. 22. While they weren’t there for the fine arts, they certainly were there to engage in the political theatre of Senator Tom Cotton’s contentious town hall. Because the event started at 5 p.m., some had arranged for time off from their jobs and some had driven hours to be there.

Sure enough, once the doors opened, the auditorium filled to the brim. From the standing room aisles to the far off tops of the balcony, the senator’s constituents took their seats. They carried with them print outs of Facebook reaction buttons of the iconic thumbs up in blue — and oppositely pointing down in red. Many had red squares they brought to raise if the senator said something they disagreed with or found to be questionable. Likewise, they had green cards to raise when they heard things they liked from the senator. Most all of the people there had name tags with their zip codes on them, to counter the notion that there were protesters paid by liberal agents to be there and heckle the senator.

I spoke with a few people before Cotton took to the stage. There were mothers, school teachers, business owners, students and people like Kati McFarland, whose life depended on the Affordable Care Act.

McFarland would later become an icon for the town hall across mainstream media with her question asking Cotton to commit to providing coverage gaps if the ACA is repealed.

“I am chronically ill, I’m only 26, but I have a laundry list of conditions and without the Affordable Care Act, I will die,” she said. “Cotton is very cautious about repeal and replace, or at least he gives a lot of lip service to it. His voting record doesn’t reflect that I don’t think. He has never really put forward a solid plan for replacement. I’d like to ask him is what would he like to say to all the Arkansans that without the ACA, wouldn’t have quality of life or would die.”

Kati_Cotton town hall

Staff Photo Nick Brothers Kati McFarland asked Sen. Tom Cotton about committing to providing coverage gaps for the Affordable Health Care Act if he and the other Senate republicans vote to repeal it. Her request for everyone at the town hall who is affected by the ACA to stand up made several major media outlets in the following week.

Patty Styles, a school teacher, had with her a sign that read “Open Your Eyes, Bible, Heart, History Book”. She showed up to confront the senator about an investigation into the possible ties between the Trump administration and Russia.

Now Senator Tom Cotton isn’t exactly a beloved senator. He has a 76 percent C rating by based on his voting habits. His Politifact truth-o-meter rating has him at 57 percent of his statements they have assessed as either mostly false or worse, so he either lies or only tells a version of the truth most of the time. His foreign policy stunt where he broke chain of command as a freshman senator and wrote a letter backed by his Republican colleagues to the Iranian leadership against the Obama administration’s nuclear arms negotiations was called “mutinous” by its critics.

So as soon as the town hall started with Cotton strutting across the stage, tall, sinewy and business casual, things got pretty heated immediately.

Clips from the Cotton town hall have been dispersed all throughout the news media and world wide web, and most recently Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The takeaways featured Kati McFarland’s request for everyone that was affected by the Affordable Care Act to stand (and pretty much everyone did) followed by her grilling the senator for a direct statement of committing to coverage gaps between a repeal, an older woman’s emotional plea to Cotton about how her loved ones would be left for dead without the ACA and asked Cotton what his insurance was, a little boy named Toby’s question about Trump cutting PBS to pay for the Mexico wall and a young man who asked Cotton if it was good Christian leadership to support the policy and actions of a man who “wants to grab women by the pussy.”

Most of the clips didn’t feature what Tom Cotton had to say in return, and for the most part, his answers were circular and vague.


Staff Photo Nick Brothers Senator Tom Cotton fielded about two dozen questions from constituents at his contentious town hall at Springdale High School Feb. 22.

Cotton’s first direct answer of the night, about 20 minutes in, came from someone asking if he agrees with President Trump about the mainstream media being an “enemy of the state.” His curt response was, “No.”

Moreover, Cotton could barely get across a few phrases in his responses before being met with a deafening, howling wall of “boo’s” and general scorn. The collective anger, stress and frustration in the room aimed at the senator was palpable.

Constantly, there was a barrage of individuals shouting, and if the rabble got to a certain decibel level the crowd would “shh” them. Which, I should add, while half of the crowd was loud and angry, there was another half who were quiet and courteous. It was from that side several thoughtful, informed

“What is your plan!?”

“Answer the question!”

“Investigate Russia!”

And at one point, seemingly the entire crowd joined in the chant of “do your job” regarding keeping the Affordable Health Care Act intact or committing to coverage gaps, and later “tax returns.”

Yet, I’m under the impression this was all to the senator’s plan. Cotton patiently waited and heard every long-winded, rambling question and earned brownie points by saying “Now, now, let them speak” when side questions errupted. For every contentious question, he would respond with something easily disagreeable— e.g. “there’s such a thing as cleaner coal”— that was met with a wall of sustained boo’s.


Staff Photo Nick Brothers | Patty Styles, a school teacher, said she attended so she could ask Sen. Tom Cotton about investigating the possible ties between Russia and the Trump administration.

Perfect, he surely thought, less actual answering I have to do. Most all of his answers were circular, drawn out and otherwise unhelpful to the questions asked. His usual refrain was along the lines of (my paraphrasing) “these sorts of things are settled with elections. Sorry, can’t help ya.”

Coyly, the senator would make statements in response like “So it seems like a lot of people aren’t happy with President Trump” and “Well, I get the impression you guys aren’t Betsy DeVos fans.” Of course, these were met with more jeers.

Still, the senator gave the crowd an extra 30 minutes to hear their requests. That’s something the crowd cheered for.

Cotton played the theatrics of his town hall well. He took on about about 20 or so questions from the crowd, let them speak their minds. He was calm, cool and collected the entire time. He was respectful, and often times thanked the people who pointed out their family’s service and for their questions. He never accused the crowd, unlike Congressman Steve Womack, who got riled up at his town hall said “you people just want to investigate everything.”

To no surprise from the fury displayed at the town hall, much of the blow back to the event was a mix of those who supported the anger and those who found the attendees to be disrespectful, unruly and hate-filled. To a degree, it’s hard for me to disagree with the critics. It was unruly. But at the same time, have they been paying attention?

Still, the optics from this town hall were strong for those seeking to bolster Democrat positions. We’ll likely see more of these moments from Feb. 22 in the coming months. It was thrilling to be in the room, and seeing democracy — even though it was ugly at times — in action was both a privilege and an honor to be a part of.

Thanks for reading.

Categories: Commentary