By Jim Morrill, The Charlotte Observer
No more than five minutes after U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger kicked off his final town hall meeting by appealing for a “civil discourse,” the boos and catcalls began.
“All right, you’ve talked enough,” one man yelled. “Let’s hear from the crowd.”
“Trump needs to go and Pittenger needs to go,” another shouted.
Thus began a raucous, two-hour exchange Thursday between the congressman and a crowd of more than 250 at Providence High School in southeast Charlotte. It was the last of nine town hall meetings for the Charlotte Republican before Congress returns to work next week.
The meeting reflected the deepening divisions across the county as well as liberal rancor toward President Donald Trump and a Republican congressman who has been one of his outspoken supporters.
In May he called Trump’s leadership “extraordinary.” Later, when reports surfaced of a 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russians, Pittenger dismissed them as “another story in the media’s neurotic, weekly tabloid obsession of Trump-Russian collusion.”
And last month he said Trump was getting unfairly criticized for failing to strongly condemn white supremacists after their deadly Charlottesville , Va., rally while liberals hadn’t condemned Black Lives Matter and similar groups for their “hate and violence.”
“Either you will help us impeach him or you will go with him,” one audience member told Pittenger.
Pittenger defended his support of Trump’s policies but tried to differentiate them from the president’s statements and personal style.
“Obama said it all right,” Pittenger said. “But his policies were a dismal failure.”
Pittenger’s final town hall was even more contentious than his first. That was Monday in Matthews, when he faced another angry crowd. Other town halls in places such as Rockingham, Fayetteville and Elizabethtown drew their share of critics but were generally civil as he was pressed on issues such as health care, race relations and Hurricane Matthew relief.
But the risk of fireworks is one reason fewer lawmakers are holding town halls, which used to be a staple of congressional breaks.
Of the 240 House Republicans, Pittenger is one of only 52 who held town hall meetings last month, according to the Town Hall Project, a group that tracks such meetings. Only 77 of 194 House Democrats have held them. Neither Republican Sens. Richard Burr nor Thom Tillis held a public meeting.
When people weren’t talking over each other, Pittenger’s south Charlotte event featured as many speeches from the audience as questions.
Though the sharpest exchanges involved Trump, Pittenger’s positions on climate change, health care, school vouchers and Russian interference with the 2016 election also were all at odds with those of most audience members.
“We want to have our questions and concerns heard,” Ava Willimson, a leader of Indivisible, an anti-Trump group, told a reporter. “It’s helpful for us to get some things on the record.”
But the night’s tone clearly bothered some people.
“I don’t appreciate the discourse,” said Andrew Bodenheimer, a Charlotte Republican who said he voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton. “I don’t think anything gets accomplished that way. What ends up happening is people scream at each other.”
Thirteen-year-old Lawrence Nazarian even took a microphone to chastise the audience, “Many of you,” he said, “have been very rude.”
Democrat Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg commissioner who attended the town hall, said, “All I see is the frustration of people.”
“It confirms that we’re not in a good place,” she said. “People are not trusting government.”
Afterward, Pittenger said he enjoyed the raucous exchange.
“They’re very frustrated,” he acknowledged, adding that, “I really like the engagement. I like people to express themselves.”
Pittenger plans to run for re-election in the district that stretches from Charlotte to Bladen County. Republican Mark Harris, a retired pastor who lost by 134 voters in the 2016 GOP primary, has announced plans to run again. At least three Democrats, including Christian Cano and Dan McCready, are also in the race.
Last November, Pittenger won with 58 percent of the vote while Trump carried the district with 54 percent.
But in Mecklenburg County, Clinton won 62 percent of the vote.
Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist, said the town halls could help Pittenger with the people he needs.
“I don’t think it’s going to win over any Democrats,” he said, “(but) it helps him to say, ‘As a representative I’m trying to be accessible to constituents and I’m not trying to hide from them.”
Cano, who is running again after losing to Pittenger last fall, complemented the voters “fighting to hold our public servants accountable” as well as the congressman after Thursday’s town hall.
“I want to give Hon. Robert Pittenger kudos for stepping up to the plate and having the courage to remain civil the entire time,” Cano posted on Facebook. “I also want to commend his staff for their professionalism and maintaining a smile and giving us hospitality.”
Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill