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Ro Khanna’s first town hall meeting turns into ‘democracy in action’

March 22, 2017
In The News

The crowd was so large at U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna’s first town hall meeting in Fremont that many who came to hear the freshman congressman speak about his ideas for strengthening the Democratic Party couldn’t get in and ended up creating their own makeshift town hall in an overflow area.

The Feb. 22 turnout even surprised Khanna, who told the standing-room-only crowd in the Ohlone College auditorium that the town hall’s online RSVP system received slightly more than 100 responses.

Khanna, who defeated longtime Congressman Mike Honda on Nov. 8, said his team estimated that about 500 people showed up. Based on capacities of the auditorium and two other areas where people gathered, at least 400 came.

The session initially was to take place where the college’s board of trustees meets but on the day of the event it was switched to the larger auditorium, which can seat 191 people.

When every seat in the auditorium was taken and there was no place left to stand, a line formed outside of the doors and wended through a main campus thoroughfare.

Some people at the door complained to staff that they had registered online and deserved a spot inside.

But others in the line and overflow spaces said they were happy to see such a big turnout because it reflected community engagement.

“It’s good that it’s popular,” said Liz Weber of Santa Clara, who had registered online but was denied a spot in the auditorium. “I’d rather there be not enough seats than too many seats because there’s no one here.”

Those in line were directed to the trustees’ board room, where a remote speaker had been set up to capture the congressman’s question-and-answer session. But before long people were cramming in at the doors trying to find a spot there too.

Right outside the board room, a circular lobby that officials say has a capacity of 81 people was filled to the brim. Because they couldn’t see or hear Khanna, members of this group decided to hold their own community discussion.

Marna Schwartz of Los Altos said she saw “a lot of people, a lot of energy, a lot of passion” in the lobby as people chatted with their neighbors, but there was no structure.

So she decided to invite the crowd to participate in a group discussion and got a favorable response. Someone wrote down the key points of what was being discussed and Schwartz said afterward she planned to email the notes to Khanna.

“I feel really good about it,” Schwartz said in an interview.

“I feel like I was able to be a contribution to a sense of togetherness, and a sense of us being able to listen to one another. The opportunity for a community to come together in a more focused conversation, rather than a very chaotic showing up-ness.”

Some people who stayed in the lobby area and spoke with this newspaper later said the discussion was civil, with people of different ages sharing their concerns over transgender rights, endangered species, climate change and immigration issues, among other topics.

While many who spoke espoused Democratic positions, some conservatives and self-identified President Donald Trump supporters got their say as well.

Charlene McAulay of San Jose said she was impressed with how prepared people were to discuss their issues of interest.

“This was really democracy in action,” McAulay said. “People were able to ask questions and express opinions.”

After speaking to the people in the auditorium, Khanna addressed those in the board room. During both sessions, he talked about wanting to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction and help create “moral clarity” among his fellow congressional Democrats.

In summing up his message to the auditorium audience, Khanna said, “We need to make the moral argument and stand united as a Democratic Party against a vicious assault on environmental rights, labor rights, health care rights.”

After the event he told The Argus that the turnout was “unbelievable.”

“It’s inspiring to see this level of engagement,” he said, “And it gives me a greater sense of obligation to go and really represent this area well.”