Of, by, and for the Empty Seats

When I planned to attend US Rep. Seth Moulton’s Town Hall in Newburyport tonight, it never occurred to me that the opposition would show up and attempt to turn it into a right-wing rally against him.

But there they were on all four corners of a downtown intersection with their signs for Bob May, Moulton’s Republican opponent on next month’s ballot, an hour before City Hall opened the auditorium doors.

Sometime after I entered, they followed.  Even May was there to shout into one of the mics passed around for questioners, so loud that I wondered if the man knows what a mic is–or if he has a severe hearing disability.

His question was why Moulton would not debate him.  After stating it, he occasionally repeated it while going on and on listing right-wing talking points about “open borders” (which they are not), “sexualized education” (which it is not), and “critical race theory” in public elementary and high schools (which it never has been).

Had he stopped talking, Moulton could have answered it much sooner than he did:  “I will not give a platform to an election denier.”

That may have been the loudest applause of the night, as the Town Hall was effectively scored by dueling applause.  At times, there were laughs and giggles at the nonsense that came from May’s supporters, including a woman who quoted Pres. Biden welcoming anyone anywhere to cross our borders.

As Moulton pointed out, no such statement was made.  When the woman insisted on it, Moulton dismissed her with the late NY Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-cited: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

That drew the second-loudest applause of the night.

The most shocking claims came from a man who condemned Ukraine and President Zelenskyy for genocide against ethnic Russians.  Carried away by his own delusion, he claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Putin’s war.

No one laughed at what he said.  In fact, it was dead silence until Mouton answered: “Pope Francis has supported Ukraine.”

Must admit that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, which set off a chain reaction.  For all my years as a teacher (and as a projectionist who often watches a film in the back of a small cinema), that’s embarrassing.  Maybe it was involuntary relief after the shock of just having heard a pro-Putin position expressed in Newburyport City Hall.

Near the end, Moulton kept referring to the first question, how can we make politics more civil.  The congressman, a veteran of four tours in Iraq, listed instances where he has worked with Republican congressmen on issues such as China’s threat to Taiwan and support for veterans.

He did qualify his quest for bipartisanship with a rhetorical question:  “How do you work with Ted Cruz?  (Pause.)  You don’t.”

That drew the loudest laugh of the night.

But I had stopped laughing.  Instead, I was scanning the balcony where every seat was empty.  On the floor were barely a hundred moveable seats, a dozen or two remaining empty.  Judging from the applause, I’ll guess that May’s alternate-reality crowd was a quarter of those in attendance while the rest were either Moulton supporters or people looking to learn something.

Judging by the volume and sound of voices, you may have thought that the MAGA crowd had us outnumbered.

Before you dismiss this with the old “squeaky wheel” adage, please consider:  If those are the numbers in Massachusetts, what must they be in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania?   You know, the usual suspects where new voting restrictions could make them the places where democracy goes to die.

To borrow a phrase that he used when addressing the MAGA crowd at least a dozen times tonight, with all due respect to Rep. Moulton, the solution to the obstruction of congress is not in bipartisanship.

It’s in filling those empty seats and raising more reasonable voices.


This was Seth Moulton’s last Town Hall meeting in the Merrimack Valley, over in Amesbury, pre-pandemic. I was seated in about the same place, front row, far to his left. Photo: Newburyport Daily News.

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