ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania—The people of Pennsylvania’s 7th District showed up to their regular appointment with their representative in Congress, Susan Wild, with a few grievances about the current situation in Washington.
“Why can’t the House,” asked one woman, “hold those who refuse to cooperate in contempt, find them, and put them in jail?”
“Yourself along with your colleagues in Congress are pursuing impeachment, which, according to several polls, the majority of Americans do not support,” argued one student moments earlier. “When are we going to see meaningful education reform, which is what Americans truly want their representatives to focus on?”
Wild, who had long been the city of Allentown’s top lawyer before winning her seat in Congress in 2018, stood onstage and calmly swatted down both lines of inquiry.
“Adam Schiff is not a judge,” she told the woman, whose question was met with unsteady but approving applause. “It is a mistake to think those of us in Washington are spending all of our time on impeachment,” she told the man, whose question was, aside from enthusiastic applause from a man wearing an InfoWars T-shirt, roundly greeted with boos.
Wednesday’s town hall was Wild’s first appearance before her constituents in eastern Pennsylvania since the news broke that President Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to open up an investigation into Joe Biden, prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to formalize an impeachment inquiry. Members of the media came in from nearby Washington and from as far away as Germany to file into a packed room at Muhlenberg College to watch how a Democratic member of Congress might handle the fresh scrutiny.
Most of the close to three dozen questions Wild fielded were about issues like health care, education, and the environment, reflecting what Washington Democrats have long insisted—that the public doesn’t care about impeachment as much as it cares about pocketbook issues.
But the evening’s town hall made clear that in parts of the country like the politically contested Lehigh Valley, perhaps no issue has as much power to spark emotion like the impeachment of Trump.
Thin applause, for example, largely met Wild’s emphasis that taking up impeachment was “the last thing in the world that I wanted” when she won her seat in Congress. And polite silence was the audience’s response to her reminder that when she was campaigning last year, she warned that impeachment would be “a two-year distraction.”
But loud applause, and a smattering of groans, drowned out Wild before she could finish her point that the precedent it would set for Congress to ignore Trump’s contact with Ukraine would be unacceptable.
The reactions in the room reflect the tricky balancing act facing Wild and many of her swing-district Democratic colleagues around the country. The American public, as opinion polls show, is evenly divided on the question of impeachment, with few people truly undecided on the question. And there seemed to be few people undecided out of the nearly 300 who showed up on Wednesday night.
As the impeachment inquiry gains steam and the 2020 election draws nearer, the task of Democrats like Wild is to defend their impeachment inquiry, which many of them never really wanted, while keeping at bay those back home who want to see Democrats do more to go after Trump—or want to see them give it up entirely.
Tim Bullard, a 64-year old writer from Allentown, asked Wild point blank if she had seen Trump’s raucous press conference earlier on Wednesday—during which he raged against his enemies—and posited that Trump was obviously crazy. “I’m not going to comment on the president’s state of mind,” said Wild.
Earlier, Bullard had said the president needs to be removed from office but declined to go after Wild for not getting on board with impeachment earlier. “Everyone can do a little better,” he told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, John Jaffe, a urologist from near Allentown, pressed Wild over Democrats’ focus on impeachment, a question he could barely get through before being drowned out by boos. He later told The Daily Beast he is a longtime liberal who is frustrated with what he sees as Democrats’ relentless, farcical attacks on Trump.
Wild, said Jaffe, faced significant risk in either holding off on impeachment or coming out in support of it. “Given the momentum in the Democrat Party toward impeachment, she couldn’t not get on board,” he said.
Like many of the new crop of majority-making Democrats, Wild had been reluctant to back impeachment on the basis of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings, and she told reporters before her town hall that she believed the conduct Mueller outlined did not constitute an impeachable offense. At a town hall in August, she said, “you don’t want to try a case where the facts are not all lined up and you’re ready with all your evidence that you’re going to introduce.”
But for Wild, like many of her cohort, the Ukraine story changed the calculus dramatically. She became one of the 21 most vulnerable freshman Democrats to indicate support for impeachment in the wake of the whistleblower story. Her district, which is centered on the former steel country of the Lehigh Valley, was narrowly won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 but is home to areas that swung hard from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016.
Wild won by eight points in the 2018 midterms, but she’s already drawn Republican challengers for 2020 and is one of three top GOP targets in the Keystone State, which is crucial to Trump’s re-election hopes.
To some voters here, Wild’s careful approach to impeachment is less of a political liability and more a reason to send her back to Washington. Sharon Listwa, a retired educator and registered Republican, told The Daily Beast she voted for Wild in 2018 and even knocked on doors for her.
“She held her ground until she could no longer hold her ground,” Listwa said of Wild’s stance on impeachment. “She takes her time. None of this is shoot-from-the-hip.”
While Democrats publicly and privately worry how a protracted impeachment inquiry might affect their chances at taking the White House and holding the House, Wild said she hadn’t thought about whether all this would make her reelection bid more difficult. But she did suggest that the party focuses on impeachment at its own peril—something that may or may not satisfy devoted liberals here.
“I will tell you that I believe I will get re-elected on the basis of the work that I’ve done for the district and for constituents, and not on how this impeachment issue goes one way or the other,” she said.
“It’s our job to make sure, No. 1, that it does not overshadow everything else that needs to get done,” she went on, mentioning Democrats’ efforts to pass legislation on infrastructure, prescription drug pricing, and others that have languished in partisan Washington. “That’s our No. 1 job.”