Posted 9:45 a.m. | Updated 9 p.m.
“Senator, you suck!”
Those words greeted Sen. Cory Gardner Tuesday morning at the first in-person town hall he’s held in recent memory. Activist groups upset over Gardner’s vote to support the Republican health care bill have targeted him for his lack of public access for months.
“I love you too!” Gardner replied at the rowdy event in Colorado Springs, his first of three such gatherings of the day.
The combative tone continued for the next 90 minutes, with many audience questions focusing on health care.
"Why did you vote to hurt those people?" one woman asked Gardner, referring to his recent vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She said her mother, who was suffering from pancreatic cancer, was able to live longer because of the Affordable Care Act.
"I'm voting for HER," someone in the audience shouted.
"I'm glad it worked. And I'm sorry for your loss," Gardner replied. He then recounted his own family's health issues, including his mother's fight with breast cancer.
But, he said, pivoting to the issue about rising costs, "The goal is not to help other people and not your mom. The goal is to make sure that we're making something work for more people — for everyone. Because what we have right now is not working for some of us."
- Earlier: Gardner Stands By Repeal And Replace
Health care was top of mind in Greeley and Lakewood as well.
Gardner asked the Greeley crowd how many supported single-payer health care, and an overwhelming majority in the high school auditorium raised their hands.
"I do not support single-payer, I do not support socialized medicine," Gardner said in response, arguing that a better solution is an improved economy with more people getting health care through an employer plan.
The skeptical crowd repeatedly booed him.
"This was so partisan, what you came up with," said town hall commenter Scott McLean of Greeley, 63.
"I hope that we'll have everybody at the table going forward," Gardner replied, adding ;that the Senate would resume health care discussions in the fall.
The crowd scoffed, some shouting additional profanities as Gardner stood without responding to the jeers. The senator tried to show the Greeley crowd graphs outlining increased government spending on health care. The crowd responded with boos and angry shouts.
"What happens when this spending continues going up and we have no way to pay for it?" Gardner asked, his voice barely audible over a jeering crowd.
"Even if we disagree, we cannot continue shouting each other down in this country," he said.
The other big topic in Greeley was the violence in Charlottesville. Gardner did condemn white supremacists over Twitter, but many people came up to the mic asking what was he going to do about it — was he going to use his power as a Senator to take white supremacist terrorism more seriously?
Some education-related questions also came up. One former teacher asked Gardner why he voted for now Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to be confirmed, citing her lack of policy experience. Another person asked whether or not Gardner supports the DREAM Act which would afford a path to citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants.
Gardner held his third and final town hall of the day at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood. Hundreds mostly filled an auditorium with a capacity of over a thousand. Lindsey Lewis from Thorton sat right up front. Her big concern: Medicaid.
"My main concern is with health care," she said. "I voted for Cory and I feel like he’s kind of letting us down with some of the promises he made."
Hundreds of thousands in Colorado got enrolled in the insurance program for low-income American through the Affordable Care Act. But Republican health reform plans threatened to slash Medicaid spending.
Lewis said she has two college-educated brothers enrolled in the program because they don’t work enough hours to get insurance through their employers. She blames Gardner for not doing enough to protect people like them.
“I think they just need to understand that it’s not an individual's fault if they can’t afford health care. They seem to think we’re doing something wrong if we need Medicaid. See what he has to say about that," she said. "Just in general, the stuff Colorado stands for, I feel like Trump and Republicans don’t anymore.”
One pointed exchange involved Dr. Erin Egan, a doctor who serves patients on the rural Western Slope. She said 20 percent of those she sees are on Medicaid. More than 90 percent have pre-existing conditions.
"You just told us you stood for things like not cutting Medicaid and not cutting pre-existing conditions, we asked you to stand your ground and vote your principles and you did not," she said to cheers from some in the room.
Gardner told her the Affordable Care Act helped some people, but not others, and that 145,00 people in Colorado pay a tax to the federal government because they can’t find affordable insurance.
I enjoyed the town halls in CS Springs, Greeley, & Lakewood. It's important to listen to one another, even if we disagree on some issues. pic.twitter.com/l9iHVpQ3mq— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) August 15, 2017
He said he backs efforts that will lead us to lower cost insurance, "making sure Medicaid is sustainable, about making sure we restore stability in the individual market, that we can have affordable insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. That’s what I’ve been fighting for, that’s what I’m going to continue to do."
The next question came from the other side of the room and the other side of the debate. Joan Poston, from Jefferson County, asked why it was fair for one couple to have to pay thousands of dollars when their child was born, while many others in the maternity ward paid much less because they were covered by Medicaid.
“So senator, please tell me, when will you repeal and replace?" she said.
Gardner's reply was to say he was "going to continue to fight for something that works to repeal and replace the ACA, to something that lowers costs and increases the quality of care."
Some in the crowd tried to pin Gardner down to some commitments. One to have future town halls, which he agreed to do. Another to promise not to vote for any piece of health care legislation that hadn’t had a least three weeks of public scrutiny. To that Gardner said he’d read the legislation — and do what’s right for Colorado.
Before Tuesday, the senator’s most recent in-person appearance was at a planned news event in Durango alongside Sen. Michael Bennet, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Scott Tipton. It was supposed to serve as an update on the Gold King Mine cleanup. Instead, residents angry about health care uncertainty packed the room and called on Gardner to oppose his party's health care plans.
Senate Republicans have not yet won enough votes to make any changes to the nation's health care system. But Democrats have implored their allies to keep speaking out against changes to Obamacare, so protesters are expected at Gardner's additional town halls.
Gardner was on national television over the weekend blasting President Donald Trump for mincing words about racial violence in Virginia. Gardner said that the president "must call evil by its name."
That earned Gardner some praise from the crowd in Colorado Springs.
"I was so proud of you. I saw you, and I saw a different Cory Gardner," Sharon Akins said, her voice wavering. "And I loved it."
The Associated Press and CPR's Nathaniel Minor, Ann Marie Awad and John Daley contributed to this report.