Opening his Town Hall on Saturday, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter ticked off five reasons he was “ecstatic” Donald Trump was president, and reacted to the crowd’s jeers.
“My original plan was to play ‘We are the champions’ by Queen whenever you guys start doing that,” Hunter told more than 300 at Ramona Mainstage. “But they told me not to.”
Minutes later, though, when boos greeted his refusal to oppose bills to “dismantle the EPA” and remove “environmental protection acts,” the East County Republican quietly crooned: “We are the champions, my friends.”
In a safely conservative district where he’s swept to re-election four times by an average of 34 percentage points, Hunter was singing a happy tune at the 90-minute event — even ignoring a local office-holder’s public vow to run against him in 2018.
Trump’s 54.6 percent majority in Hunter’s sprawling 50th district was the fourth-highest of the state’s 53 congressional districts even though California went for Hillary Clinton with 61.7 percent.
Except for one knock on Trump — for picking a Veterans Affairs insider as new secretary — Hunter was unapologetic about the new commander in chief — brushing off critical questions on Obamacare repeal and immigration.
He even defended Trump’s tweets-without-evidence that President Obama “tapped his wires” at Trump Tower.
“Here’s what’s pretty funny,” Hunter said. “Trump used the term wiretap. When Trump tweeted out wiretap, well guess what? We haven’t wiretapped since we had cell phones.”
That meant the intelligence community, FBI and Justice Department could rightfully say: “We have never wiretapped Trump’s phones,” Hunter said. “Here’s what they call it now … intercepting. If Trump would have tweeted out: ‘My phone calls [have] been intercepted,’ they would not be able to deny it. They’re all lawyers.”
Broadcast live by Ramona Town Radio and archived on Soundcloud (and posted on YouTube via East County Magazine), the meeting took questions from 16 people, submitted in advance. Dan Summers, a 31-year Ramona resident, randomly drew paper slips from a large green bucket, calling out names of questioners. Only a quarter answered the call, since hundreds couldn’t make it into the antique concert hall with scuffed wooden floors.
Only three or four questions were from apparent Hunter supporters, including former Ramona water board president Darrell Beck, who drew jeers of his own.
Beck, 83, wanted to know if a ban could be applied to “all foreign nations” — and not just six in the contested Trump travel order. Beck cited the old Ellis Island practice of sending sick immigrants home.
Hunter was sympathetic.
“The reason his question is valid is even if you’re from Germany now, we can’t guarantee that the German government vetted you. We can’t tell if you’re a radical Islamist in France. … Why not make America as safe as we possibly can? What’s wrong with waiting 10 days?”
Earlier, the 40-year-old congressman repeated his military “Hunter Doctrine” — which he said Trump had copied: “It’s called ‘You kick ass and then you leave.’”
A veteran of three combat tours (“Iraq in ’03, Iraq in ’04, Afghanistan in ’07”), Hunter said America can’t help people “who don’t want to help themselves. You can’t help people that don’t share the same — and I’m going to say … Judeo-Christian — values that we have in this country.”
Hunter said “radical Islamists do not believe that life matters,” and would kill themselves, their women and let their kids blow themselves up. “They do not respect or value life.”
But it was Gloria Chadwick who expressed the most pointed lack of respect for Hunter.
Luckily chosen to address him at the foot of the stage, the 18-year member of the Grossmont Healthcare District board began by asking about veterans’ health care. But then the retired psychiatric nurse pivoted.
After telling him that she attended the inauguration “to support the president that was duly elected” as well as the Washington Women’s March, Chadwick recalled coming home to read of Hunter’s spending scandal — a recurring issue at a Town Hall that attracted an estimated 1,000 people to Ramona.
“And I have to tell you,” she said. “I’m startled by the corrupt nature of it, the dishonorable conduct. And you do not deserve to represent us. And I’m here to tell you that … I am going to run against you in 2018.”
Hunter launched into a 4 1/2-minute discussion of how only veterans with service-related problems should get VA help. He concluded with “Thank you for your time” and didn’t mention her challenge.
Also in the room were Hunter’s 2016 general-election opponent Patrick Malloy (who plans to run again but focus more on fund-raising, he said) and newly announced candidate Pierre Beauregard of Ramona (who was third in line for the Town Hall, behind 5 a.m. arrival Wayne Hendrickson, a 74-year-old Ramona TEA’d member and retired San Onofre contract manager).
Chadwick, a wildlife artist with a passion for resource conservation, sat in the front row with her new campaign manager in tow — Gary Gartner, who handed out large pill bottles with jelly beans (some including juice-flavored ones with no high-fructose corn syrup, he noted).
Gartner, the public face of ousted county Supervisor Dave Roberts in his 2015 office-politics drama, told Times of San Diego that despite his huge GOP registration advantage, Hunter has been “riding on his father’s coattails name. And now with his stupidity, his arrogance and his corruption, he’s very vulnerable.”
Chadwick, 70, has a “good chance,” he said, “because she’s a nurse. People trust nurses. They know they’re caring people” and because she’s the only woman running.
“Voters are repelled by corruption in office. They will be open to a change,” Gartner said, noting that a nascent website went live Saturday at GloriaChadwickForCongress.com.
Her hopes of flipping Republicans were fueled by a recent chat.
“The other day she was concerned about what the reaction will be,” Gartner said. “And the friend said: ‘Duncan Hunter Jr. is not like his father. And I’m very glad you’re running.’”
Other highlights of the Town Hall:
• Hunter alleged that over the past eight years, undocumented immigrants could easily enter the country at the San Diego border: “You simply walk up to an ICE agent and say: ‘I’d like to come into America,’ and the ICE agent says ‘Come on in.’ That was the Obama policy. You didn’t even have to jump the fence.”
• Hunter said the Office of Congressional Ethics, which survived an early GOP effort to kill it, “was created by Nancy Pelosi” as a “fairly liberal group that puts things way out of perspective” and fed details of his spending issues to The San Diego Union-Tribune, “which is owned by the LA Times.”
“We have a congressional ethics committee — made up of Democrats and Republicans. They go through stuff all the time,” Hunter said. “You shouldn’t have a Nancy Pelosi group being able to air grievances on just one side without having looked at it objectively by the guys who are actually elected to do this in Congress.”
• Eighty-year-old Dante Cosentino, a 41-year Ramona resident, challenged Hunter’s stance against the Affordable Care Act — which the congressman blasted as leading to higher costs for his own local office staff, which he said was on the District of Columbia Obamacare network.
“I have access to a first-class seat on the airplane, but if I can’t afford it, it doesn’t make a bit of difference, right?” Cosentino said. “What about health care being for everyone?”
Said Hunter: “I don’t believe in guaranteed health care. I believe in guaranteed access to health care that anybody can afford. If you’re not able to afford it, and you’re very sick, we’re going to be giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the states. … If you take government out of it, it will be less expensive. It will be affordable, and you’ll have competition.”
• Hunter was asked if he would vote for an independent investigation to “root out all aspects of” Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, “no matter where it may lead.” The retired Marine doubted the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee affected the election, but acknowledged that Russians “hack us all the time,” including the government, military and defense contractors.
“What I’m not going to do is vote for a witch hunt that we’ve been infiltrated by seditious Obama folks that want to go after this president. I’m not going to do it.”
Then Hunter asked: “You guys have heard the term ‘deep state’? You have thousands of Obama appointees, and people who worked under that administration, who hate Donald Trump as much as you do. They’re trying to take him down from the inside. I do think Donald Trump did have his phone conversations and emails intercepted.”
“And those of you who believe in Democracy and free elections have told me that a sitting president whose party is running for the presidency can wiretap and intercept another candidate’s phone — I think you would be for freedom and liberty. Not for an Orwellian government that controls us, which is what we have right now.”
“I’m going to give him two minutes,” Hunter said as members of the crowd began shouting disapproval of time taken away from questions. “He’s a good guy. He’s an immigrant, too.”
Veltmeyer took 4 1/2 minutes, his remarks interrupted by catcalls and whistles.
“I’m an American. I’m a Latino, born in Ecuador, South America,” said the Sharp Grossmont Hospital surgeon. “When I was 9 years old, I was homeless. I had family who lived in El Cajon. And for two years they worked very hard to get me in here to America. My mom came here eight years after. Her legal immigration process was 10 years.”
• A rally after the Town Hall drew about 150 people, with Cheryl Brown of San Marcos one of its organizers. She says she’s been “doing Indivisible full time,” but didn’t expect her North County chapter to reach 1,000 members this quickly. At 62, she’s a veteran of political battles, including one in the 1980s to halt federal regulation of the fitness industry. She later was a Gov. Pete Wilson appointee to the Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which included Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I think we’ll see a lot of qualified candidates next time around competing against [Hunter],” she said. “Have you heard of Brand New Congress? (It’s) a group that broke off from Bernie Sanders last summer.”
Brown, who observed the Town Hall from the back of the room, said about 80 percent appeared to be Hunter critics.
“I was surprised, honestly, there weren’t more [Hunter] supporters,” said the 1973 Helix High School graduate. “We communicated we weren’t happy with a lot of things. I’ve told [Hunter aide] Mike Harrison that what I want from Duncan Hunter is I want him to be an American and to protect our democracy, and I think that’s at risk right now. … We’re concerned about our institutions being gutted. We’re concerned about what Trump is doing to the country, and I would like to see — whether he’s Republican or Democrat — stand up and protect America.”
Times of San Diego invited Town Hall-goers to share their reactions. Some highlights:
• Kent Smith of Hidden Meadows: “I thought Duncan made a stunningly fine presence physically, maybe a tad strong and intimidating in the voice for some people. As far as content is concerned, questions from the audience supplied some new and interesting thoughts, but most queries had been heard before, permitting Duncan, ever consistent, to answer as expected.
“His technical knowledge was impressive. That older guy towards the end provided, I thought, an award-winning analogy — comparing access to private health care for the poor, with people having access to, but inability to purchase, first-class airline seats.”
• Tim Tormey of Santee: “I was not able to get inside but was part of the group gathered at [Collier County Park], listening to the live audio stream. I thought the Town Hall was as fair as could be expected given the situation. It appeared Hunter tried to stack the situation in his favor, having it at a small venue in Ramona (where the local Tea Party meets).
“Collecting questions ahead of time and pulling them randomly to address was somewhat fair — although since so many who had written questions did not actually make it into the venue (and their questions were therefore not addressed) did not turn out to be very fair for them.
“Hunter did not answer questions to my satisfaction, particularly regarding the ethics issues he is facing. He side-stepped and minimized, which is apparently acceptable political rhetoric for some. … I was also frankly stunned by some of Hunter’s answers. The idea that health care shouldn’t be guaranteed, only ‘access’ to health care is a guarantee was one of his more outrageous statements.”
• Elizabeth “Liz” Walk of Santee: “I asked the question about where Mr. Hunter stands on the Republican health-care replacement bill, especially how it will cut funds to people with disabilities and to other vulnerable populations. I felt he did do a fair job of answering my question. I was particularly interested in knowing if he was going to wait for the CBO score before voting on the bill, and he assured me he would.
“Though I don’t agree with his position on the federal government’s role in health care, I felt that he explained his rationale in a way that was understandable, given his very conservative stance.”