At U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips’ first town hall since being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives this past November, the Minnesota Democrat was quickly faced with the same type of combative questioning that has become familiar at town halls throughout the country.
At the town hall, which took place April 18 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Phillips was grilled by a woman who identified herself as Elizabeth Esty—a self-professed “fighter for women’s rights.” Esty brought up a salacious issue related to Phillips’ tenure as a state senator in the Minnesota legislature—specifically, that he had been accused by a former colleague of “gaslighting” her. Phillips has denied the allegations.
But Esty was unsatisfied with Phillips’ response, which did not provide specifics on the accusations. “You just gaslit her and it cost her a job,” Esty said.
The exchange was indicative of the increasingly divisive atmosphere at town halls across the country. Phillips was praised by some audience members for his answers to the question—while others were critical.
When Phillips was asked by Esty if he had made any specific reforms as a state senator or congressman to combat sexual assault or harassment, Phillips spoke vaguely about his work to increase awareness and awareness programs—both of which have become a standard response to such inquiries.
“I think all of us are trying to find our way,” Phillips said. “My record is one of creating pathways for survivors to be heard and found justice—creating safe places for them to find help. That’s my record and it’s one I’m proud of.”
Regardless of one’s opinion of Phillips or his response to the question, it was clear that Esty’s original accusation was hitting a nerve among some in the audience, and Phillips’ response did little to quell the tension.
Ultimately, it was a tense and uncomfortable moment for all involved. While Phillips’ town hall was a success overall, this exchange serves as a reminder of the intensity of the current political climate—and that such reform efforts need to be handled delicately and thoughtfully in order to achieve the desired outcomes.