WHIPPANY, N.J.—One of Representative Mikie Sherrill’s district directors began the town hall in a filled community center Monday night with her customary call for civility. Hanover Township Boy Scout Troop 155 led the crowd in the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. An elementary school teacher sang a rousing national anthem. Everybody clapped and then sat down together in rows and rows of plastic folding chairs. Then came the first question.
“We sent you to Washington,” a woman began, “to get work done, for us and for our country, and it appears that for the last couple years all that has been going on is investigations.” Sitting in the front, I could almost feel people’s shoulders tense up. Everybody knew what was coming. The towheaded scouts had filed to the back. The adults had the floor now. And impeachment was in the air. “We honestly,” the woman continued, “can’t trust Adam Schiff …”
She was drowned out by a wall of noise. The space rippled with a mixture of boos and cheers and uncorked angst.
“Do you have a question?” a man yelled.
“Sit down!” another shouted.
“Excuse me!” Sherrill interjected. “We agreed to be respectful!”
This was Sherrill’s first town hall since the late September start of the formal impeachment inquiry directed at President Donald Trump—triggered, in part, by her, when the new Democratic congresswoman from this state’s 11th District, a mostly suburban Republican stronghold, joined six other moderate freshman members with national security backgrounds and called for impeachment hearings in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “We do not,” they wrote, “arrive at this conclusion lightly.”
Sherrill, after all, had spent months during the Mueller investigation toeing an increasingly tenuous line, urging caution and preaching patience. But the first rounds of reporting about the Ukraine scandal, she believed, had left her no choice but to change her mind. This impeachment process, she told me tearfully in her office on Capitol Hill, was a “1776 kind of fight”—a fight, potentially, for the continued existence of the democracy. She also said she knew she must explain clearly and carefully to her constituents why this extreme constitutional remedy had become a necessity.
So here she was, two months later, barely more than a year after she was elected, in a right-leaning part of her district, miked up, dressed in red shoes and a blue blazer, standing in front of a colossal American flag … explaining. “So, as most of you know here, I did not run for office to impeach the president. I ran on taxes and health care and infrastructure,” she told the more than 250 people on hand. “However, as somebody who spent her life working on issues of national security, as someone who spent her life working with foreign governments and our allies across the world, the president crossed a line for me when it seemed as if he had withheld critical military funding from a security partner because he wanted them to investigate an opponent of his in an election.”
The forceful cheers and the boos signaled the predicament facing Sherrill and the other centrists who helped flip the House in the 2018. Though many of them ran and won on local issues that attracted moderate Republicans, the explosive impeachment proceedings have generated a centrifugal partisanship that is testing the strength of their cross-party support.
Sherrill pivoted to what else she is doing in Washington, citing her work on the House Armed Services Committee; on the committee on science, space and technology; and on election security legislation she’s co-sponsored.
“But I do think it’s critical,” she concluded, “that we understand just what happened with respect to Ukraine. I think it’s a matter of national security. And I think it’s important that Congress performs its duty there as well.”
What became more and more evident as the evening went on, though, was that this explanation was not enough. Not for everybody. Because impeachment didn’t stop coming up. Trump didn’t stop coming up. Since I started following Sherrill at the beginning of the year, I’ve been to almost all of her town halls—in a rec center gym, in a middle school auditorium, at an assisted living facility, in the council chambers of a rural borough. None of those town halls—polite, orderly, at times even staid—felt like this town hall. This one pulsed with a frayed, unruly kind of energy.
The emotion Sherrill showed that September day in her office was remarkable not only because it gave a glimpse of the toll of her role in a moment of such consequence but also because she’s usually so unflappable. Beyond her biography—former Navy helicopter pilot, former federal prosecutor, mother of four—what propelled her to victory last year was, in fact, her demeanor. She was steady, and she was moderate—moderate in her politics as well as her mien, and she was sufficiently centrist to flip a district that had been in GOP control for more than 30 years. While she ran in some ways because of her alarm at the ascension of Trump, her effective pitch was the opposite of divisive. It was all “bipartisan” and “broad coalitions.” It was country over party. It was let’s get stuff done by coming back together again.
But Monday night was … not that.
Over the course of an hour and a half, Sherrill was asked about vaping, anti-Semitism, federal spending, the national debt, state and local taxes, and even her book recommendations for children ( To Kill a Mockingbird). But the conversation kept coming back to an overarching theme. One of the Boy Scouts squeaked out a plea for Republicans and Democrats to stop the “fighting.” He wondered what she might be able to do to make it stop. One woman, recently retired, gave a sort of rambling confessional about how scared she is, worrying out loud whether her son, daughter and grandson are going to be OK. Whether anybody is. “What’s going to happen to all of us?” she said. “What’s going to happen to our government? To our country?” Monday night at the Hanover Township Community Center was, in sum, a raw, unsettling, ground-level manifestation of the living-on-different-planets tenor of the impeachment hearings of the past two weeks and, more broadly, the intractably split Congress and nation.
After it was over, people milled about. On the tips of tongues was the first question of the night.
“Off the wall,” said Democrat Jack Gavin, 60, an IT professional who’s a staple at Sherrill’s events.
A woman in a fur coat, a Republican named Ruth Anne, on the other hand, didn’t think the question was “off the wall.” She thought the answer was. “Very disturbing,” she told me. “I thought, by now, after the two weeks of hearings, she would have seen, ‘Oh, my God, there’s nothing there.’” She wouldn’t tell me her last name.
Gavin had on his tan hat that read “FACTS MATTER.” Ruth Anne had on her red hat that read “TRUMP.” They walked separately into the dark.
The students weren’t surprised. In attendance at the town hall were Julie White, Bianca Walder and Anna Agresti, all enrolled in Whippany Park High School's Advanced Placement course in U.S. government and politics, taught by Richard Schwartz—for whom Sherrill’s events act as an extension of the the classroom. White had on her phone screenshots from a Hanover Township Facebook group. A man named Doug Emann had posted news of the town hall. Others had posted their responses.
“Stop the impeachment bullshit!!!” wrote a Frank Pedalino.
“I had high hopes for this coward. I thought she ran on a platform of being an independent & open minded. But she has just proved she is no different than the rest of the swamp,” wrote a William Ulrich.
“VOTE her OUT OF CONGRESS,” wrote a Julian Crawford.
The online vitriol now manifested IRL.
The man who asked Sherrill for the children’s book recommendations somehow worked into his warm-and-fuzzy, blessedly-off-politics question a Trump dig. “I’m a big reader of books,” he told her, “unlike our president.”
A different woman stood up and asked another question about impeachment. If Trump were a Democrat, too, she wanted to know, would Sherrill still have the same stance?
Sherrill answered by reminding everybody that she ran saying she wasn’t going to vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House and then went to Washington and on her first day made good on that promise. “And that’s an interesting way to start your career as a member of the House of Representatives and the Democratic Caucus,” she said, calling that a “proof point” that she wasn’t beholden to some party line, returning to explaining. “So, if we had a Democratic president who had withheld military aid from a foreign leader who was facing an existential threat—Russia is an existential threat to Ukraine—and then was trying to force that foreign power to investigate an American citizen, namely a son of his political opponent … would I want to hear more about that? Would I want to learn more about that? Would I want to begin an inquiry? Yes. I would.”
The recently retired woman who said she is scared wore a shirt showing support for Sherrill, and she embedded in all that she said a short question for the congresswoman.
“How are you feeling?”
After the woman finished, Sherrill opted to answer.
“How do I feel?” she said. “Um, I guess, you know—I think there’s a lot of people across the country that are scared, worried about their future—how they’re going to pay for their retirement, how they’re going to put their kids through college, worried about the epidemic of gun violence. And, now, those things are really scary, no doubt. But I look across this room, and I see where we’ve gotten to tonight. ... We had a lot of questions. There are a lot of questions that really I think frustrate people in one way or another and even anger people in one way or another. But we all sat here together, and we’re going to keep sitting here for a little longer”—people laughed, just a little—“and we’re going to talk about this, because this is a democracy, and maybe we leave here a little frustrated, or maybe we leave here thinking, ‘I’m going to do more.’ Maybe some of you think, ‘I’m going to go knock on more doors for Mikie Sherrill.’ Maybe you think, ‘I’m going to get rid of Mikie Sherrill.’ But at the end of the day, we’re here because we care about this country. And that gives me such a great deal of hope.”
It sounded good.
After Sherrill’s first town hall, in January, I told her it had been “a little boring.”
“That’s — OK?” she said.
It’s become something of a recurring joke.
“I’m surprised you came back,” she said with a smile after a May town hall in Bloomfield.
“I love boring town halls,” I said.
On Monday night, after most people had left, I returned to the well.
“This town [hall] was … not boring,” I said.
She smiled, but this time only kinda, and seemed not to be in the mood. “I don’t think any of my town halls are boring, so …”
She told me she wasn’t surprised by how this one had gone. “There’s not much I don’t expect in our district,” she said. “We have people from across the political spectrum.”
I, too, wanted to know what the woman wearing the Sherrill shirt wanted to know. How was she feeling, heading into the holidays, as 2019 hurtles toward ( deep breath) 2020?
She talked about everything but herself. She talked about everything but impeachment. “I feel like we’re moving forward on a lot of the issues that people in my district care deeply about. I hope to see H.R. 3 pass soon. … I hope we can conference that with the Senate. … I’m on the state and local tax deduction task force. … We haven’t moved forward as quickly on getting shovels in the ground. … I’ve been back and forth with the secretary of Transportation’s office. …” She went on. “Congress,” she said, “doesn’t move as quickly or as orderly as military movements.”
One of Sherrill’s staffers was making faces at another trying to nudge her out of the community center.
Her support for impeachment, of course, was for the inquiry. How she votes next month remains to be seen. For a rookie member from the sort of district at the heart of the balance of power in Congress, Sherrill appears to be, at least for now, electorally secure. She has a primary challenger who got in mainly because of her initial reluctance to come out in favor of impeachment. She has a Republican challenger who just got in the other day. Others are still mulling runs. It will be an uphill battle for any and all of them. Prognosticators peg Sherrill as safe.
Then again, in this cultural and political moment, the only certainty is volatility. Things can and do, as we’ve seen and keep seeing, change.
I shook Sherrill’s hand and wished her a happy Thanksgiving. It was time for a break.