Constituents hold town hall minus Comstock
STERLING – When U.S. Rep Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, declined numerous invitations to appear before her constituents in a town hall format, a group of organizers decided to host one in her absence Friday.
Guy Potucek, an engineer for a private defense contractor, and one of the primary organizers of the grassroots movement, formed a Facebook group, “Indivisible Northern Virginia,” which quickly snowballed to 2,000 members and became the driving force for Friday’s event.
He said after enough failed efforts to reach Comstock, he began forming the group that would organize the meeting.
“After November 8, I got tired of yelling at my TV,” Potucek said. “On Dec. 29, I started the Facebook group, hoping to see 100 people join. Soon we had 2,000 members and we were starting to get Comstock’s attention.”
The organizers then rented the gymnasium of the Sterling Community Center, at their own expense, and formally invited Comstock.
Along with Potucek, Jan Hyland, of Lovettsville, took on a role as a spokesperson with the organization. Hyland said Comstock offered several “cop out” offers like town halls via telephone, meetings with small groups of constituents, or sending out aides in the hopes of quelling demands for a town hall.
“The more and more we asked, the more we realized the congresswoman doesn’t make herself publicly available to her constituents,” she said.
The gathering formed under the banner of the growing “Indivisible” phenomenon. The name refers to a guide written by former congressional staffers describing how citizens can engage with their representatives to resist moves from President Donald Trump’s administration.
In light of the reality that the congresswoman would not attend the event, the organizers took it upon themselves to educate themselves on the voting record and public statements Comstock has made on key issues, and to take questions in her absence.
Most of the organizers had no technical background on the topics they spoke on. But they researched congressional votes, quoted news sources and Comstock’s own statements to answer citizens’ questions.
Potucek led off taking questions on Comstock’s response to various national security issues, mostly centering around the convoluted relationship between Russia, the U.S. and the Trump administration.
Another organizer, Vlad Ouchynnikov, lives in Sterling but emigrated from Ukraine several years ago. He said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had a web of financial holdings, much like Trump.
However, he said Poroshenko divested from his holdings, because that’s what an American president would do. However, Ouchynnikov said he now feels America has lost that role of moral authority.
“That yardstick is gone,” he said. “Now, I don’t think anyone will ask, ‘What would America do?’ and then do that.”
In light of his interest, Ouchynnikov took questions on Comstock’s response to concerns of Trump’s alleged conflicts of interest.
Along with national security and conflicts of interests, organizers spoke on behalf of Comstock regarding education, the environment and the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
A spokesman for the congresswoman, Jeff Marschner, issued a statement just 30 minutes before the event in regard to emails and phone calls made throughout the week regarding whether or not Comstock would attend.
He said Comstock has held several telephone town hall events, including one this week. He went on to say the “left-wing” group Indivisible is in coordination with another group to attack members of Congress, thwart their agenda and disrupt their staff to the extent they are unable to serve the rest of their constituency.
Another Comstock aide, in an interview last week, said he’d guess Comstock wouldn’t show up because of hostile town hall events.
However, Kristen Swanson, another organizer, said the group took active steps to control the crowd, including capping attendance at 150, scheduling and moderating the flow of questions, and discouraging any kind of raucous protesting.
One citizen, Mike Turner, a retired Air Force colonel, offered a fiery rebuke of Trump.
“I never thought the man to most greatly threaten this,” he said, displaying a copy of the U.S. Constitution, “would be the president of the United States.”
Turner then took the opportunity to announce his candidacy to run for Congress, to a standing ovation. He said he ran unsuccessfully in 2008 as well.