Before Rep. Mark Sanford’s seventh town hall in the last month began Saturday in the gymnasium of Hilton Head Island High School, he sat with his sleeves rolled up in a bleacher aisle among a crowd of his constituents.
The message was clear: I’m one of you.
He spent the next two-and-a-half hours pleading his case, saying he is a Republican but sees himself in the middle.
When Hilton Head Island High School sophomore A.J. Awe introduced the District 1 representative, the student instructed the crowd to be respectful.
“That didn’t last long,” Awe said later.
The crowd, of what Sanford’s staff estimated to be between 500 and 600 people, lobbed question after question of topics ranging from Russian hacking to the travel ban to President Donald Trump’s campaign-promised border wall.
Health care dominated the debate, with constituents raising concerns about the for-profit insurance company models, the elimination of the individual mandate and what services are considered “medically essential.”
Hilton Head Island resident Lisa Pianta asked Sanford if he would be comfortable giving up his health insurance along with the estimated millions who will if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.
“Here’s the problem...” Sanford said, beginning what the crowd assumed to be a long explanation.
“I’m just looking for a yes-or-no answer,” Pianta pointed out.
The crowd started chanting, “Yes or no! Yes or no!” in an attempt to get a one-word answer.
“It can’t be answered in 140 characters,” Sanford said, referencing Trump’s tendencies to take to Twitter.
“He likes to look like he’s in the middle,” Sun City resident Cathy Sneed told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “I feel it’s important that you amend major legislation, not repeal it.”
Environment, Trump statements
The environment was also of concern to constituents.
Who’s going to keep our rivers and air clean when the Environmental Protection Agency is gutted, someone asked.
Another advised Sanford to distance himself from Scott Pruitt, who Trump appointed to head the EPA.
Sanford reminded of his environmental voting record that he said speaks to how much he loves the Lowcountry.
This sentiment sat well with those in the the crowd who held up green signs with “Agree” printed on them.
But the red “Disagree” signs went up for many questions posed about Trump.
Hilton Head resident Bobbi Helton brought her own sign that read, “Trump is a dangerous fool. Republicans stop enabling him.”
One constituent asked Sanford to rate his level of concern with the president on a scale of 1 to 10 because, she said, “Honestly, I’m at a 10.”
Sanford did not supply a number.
Pressed on how closely he aligns with some of Trump’s statements, Sanford said, “Some of what he’s said has distressed me greatly...But this isn’t about Trump.”
Bleacher-stomping and boos followed.
The crowd seemed incredulous that the issues at hand were unrelated to the outcome of the 2016 election.
“What it’s about is right here and the fundamental unrest with where we are,” he said.
Sanford’s explanation didn’t satisfy at least one crowd member.
A man told the congressman that if other candidates had been elected, “This would be a better place — and this gym would be empty.”