US Representative Robert Garcia hosted his first town hall in Downey on July 24.
Garcia, a Democrat, was elected to the House of Representatives last November and represents California’s 42nd Congressional District which includes Downey, Bell Gardens, Bell, Maywood, Huntington Park, most of Bellflower, other communities in South East Los Angeles County, and the Long Beach area.
After a late start–delayed by a half dozen protesters who lobbed fiery attacks–Garcia delivered remarks and answered questions to a crowd of roughly 90 which included city employees and officials along with other members of the community. The event was hosted in a particularly sultry Downey Firestation 1, on Paramount Boulevard, with refreshments and snacks provided by Porto’s that were paid for by Garcia’s office.
Protesters arrived shortly before Garcia’s arrival with a banner reading “Democratic Politicians are War Criminals” which featured a picture of Garcia and President Joe Biden. Only one protester was ejected by Downey Police for refusing to refrain from using a blowhorn, announcing to Garcia, “You are a fascist,” among other epithets.
Along with answering a question from one of the remaining protesters, Garcia touched on funding for local infrastructure projects, environmental protections at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and immigration reform among other issues.
While largely non-disruptive during Garcia’s remarks and the Q&A portion of the event, protesters booed loudly during moments when the larger crowd applauded.
Mayor Claudia Frometa, who introduced Garcia, made sure to let protesters know that disruptions would not be tolerated.
“We do believe in freedom of speech but this is a town hall for the community and if they’re going to be disruptive and disrespectful we will not tolerate that,” Frometa said. “Our police department is standing by, they have received one warning, and if there is one more disruption they will be escorted out.”
Protesters charged that the event, which was organized by Garcia’s office with space provided by the city, was secreted and that audience members were selected who would be receptive to Garcia’s visit.
“We object to secret town halls. This was a town hall that was only held with handpicked constituents, it was not open to the wider district and we object to that,” community activist Rodolfo Cortes said in a phone interview hours after the event. “We want real transparent democracy from our representative.”
City Spokesperson Dorian Munoz and Garcia’s Communications Director Sara Guerrero both confirmed that neither the city nor Garcia’s office publicized the event.
Guerrero said that the event was open to the public, as evidenced by the protesters being allowed to attend, and that “we followed standard protocol.” An email asking Guerrero to elaborate on what standard protocol entailed in regards to who was invited and how they were invited was not responded to as of press time.
The Downey Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization, made a public Facebook post on July 6 with event details and an open RSVP link.
Garcia quickly addressed the elephant in the room, acknowledging the protesters’ right to engage him as a public official and saying that such protests are commonplace in the current political landscape.
“Part of this country is also the right to protest, and the right to give different perspectives. I understand that right,” Garcia said before giving an opening presentation. “There isn’t a congressional town hall happening anywhere in the US where there isn’t active protest or other points of view.”
Community activist and California Democratic Party Assembly Delegate Juan Martinez made a list of demands including support for an increased minimum wage, Medicare for All, relieving student debt, and an end to funding the Ukraine military in its ongoing war with Russia.
“War is not beneficial to our society,” Martinez said. “We should not be promoting imperialism and money for the military-industrial complex.”
Garcia responded by arguing a track record of support for progressive legislation in Congress.
Garcia noted that he is a co-sponsor of a current proposal in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $17 an hour by 2028. Garcia is also sponsoring, along with fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus member Pramila Jayapal, a bill that would establish Medicare for All.
The Medicare for All Act of 2023’s lead sponsors include Jayapal, Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) along with over 100 other House Democrat co-sponsors of which Garcia is one. The act would create a single-payer system whereby the government would pay healthcare providers directly, thereby bypassing private insurance.
“I believe that healthcare is a human right. I also believe that healthcare shouldn’t be dependent on your employment,” Garcia said. “Every single person in our country should have the dignity of having healthcare.”
Garcia also said he disagrees with a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that barred the Biden administration from eliminating or reducing $400 billion worth of federal student loan debt without congressional approval.
“As an educator, I of course believe in the elimination of student debt,” Garcia, a former college instructor, said.
While Garcia said he believes the Defense Department budget is too large and cuts could be made to reinvest into domestic spending, he also strongly supports President Biden’s continued push for funding the Ukraine military.
“I do not believe that a free country like Ukraine should be invaded by a tyrant, who is Vladamir Putin, and [that the United States should] not be able to provide the support that countries like Ukraine deserve,” Garcia said. “Ensuring that we have strong democracies around the world… is also very, very important.”
According to the US State Department, the United States has sent over $44 billion to Ukraine in military support since January 2021.
“We’re just going to have to respectfully disagree,” Garcia said.
Cortes argues that these progressive pledges are simply lip service when made with no real potential for passage. With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and Democrats maintaining a slim majority in the Senate, passage of ambitious legislation like Medicare for All and elimination of student debt are unlikely.
“This has been a pattern with the Democratic Party. When they’re not in power they advocate for [progressive reforms] and when they’re not in power they don’t push for them in the slightest,” Cortes said.
On the local side, Garcia reiterated his commitment to securing grant funds for the Downey YMCA while acknowledging that an exact figure will not be available until the end of the year.
“We don’t know what the final number will be, but it will be in the millions,” Garcia said. “We’re requesting up to $3 million, which is the number the Downey YMCA needs to complete the building.”
On April 13, Garcia announced that he had submitted a request for $3 million in federal funding to the House Committee on Appropriations for funding consideration in the FY2024 cycle.
The existing YMCA facility was shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic and later deemed unsafe to reopen, according to a press release by Garcia’s office, without a massive infrastructure refurbishment. The planned new facility will provide an array of programs including hosting food distribution centers, childcare and teen scholarships.
Councilmember Mario Trujillo thanked Garcia for requesting the funds at the July 25 City Council meeting.
“It was good to hear that he’s still focused on getting us $3 million,” Trujillo said. “[The YMCA] is a very much needed important facility in our city… it will be rebuilt.”
Other town hall attendees included the entire Downey City Council, former Mayor Rick Rodriguez, Downey Fire Chief Dan Hurlock, City Manager Roger Bradley, and City Council District 3 candidates Dorothy Pemberton and Gil Contreras Lagaspi.