Elaine Luria is one of the seven newly-elected Democrats in the US House of Representatives whose decision to back an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump tipped the scales. The day after they spoke out, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal inquiry would take place. How would constituents welcome her when she returned?
Impeachment was always going to loom large as congresswoman Elaine Luria took to the New Hope Baptist Church in Virginia Beach for a town hall event, inviting residents to ask her questions.
It’s on people’s lips as they take their seats for the event – tickets sold out, but there are pockets of empty space as it begins.
This military area voted for Luria, who served in the Navy for 20 years, in 2018, with the new congresswoman defeating incumbent Republican Scott Taylor.
Being in a swing district that voted for Trump in 2016, she’s aware speaking out could risk her political career.
But, she says she would “rather be on the right side of history” and to be able to look herself in the mirror and know she did the “right thing”.
Rather than stand up and speak to Luria directly, people are invited to write questions on pieces of card as they arrive – different colours indicating the topics of impeachment, public safety and general queries. They are then drawn out and read by the moderator. There are grumblings from local Republicans on social media as this method emerges, saying it’s not a true town hall event.
The very first question is more of a comment – commending her “brave, patriotic decision” – and is met with applause as it is read out. Initially a few rise to their feet, and then much of the crowd is giving her a standing ovation.
But Luria is keen to tamp down the cheers.
“I appreciate your enthusiasm,” she responds. “But I truly feel this is a sad time for our country. I didn’t go to Washington to impeach the president.
“I wanted to do this for our country. I didn’t spend 20 years in uniform defending our country to watch something like this happen.”
But she gets a different reaction from one audience member when a question is asked about the phone call between Mr Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The president is accused of breaking the law by pressuring Ukraine’s leader to investigate former US Vice-President Joe Biden – a frontrunner to take on Trump in next year’s election – and Biden’s son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian energy company.
The phone call, she starts to explain, is a “clear instance of the president of the United States enlisting the help of a foreign leader…”
She’s interrupted by a man in a baseball cap, sitting a few rows from the front, shouting: “You are very wrong”, before she continues: “…to influence and malign a potential political opponent to affect the outcome of our next election.”
While she seems unrattled, the moderator – James Allen, who is president of the Virginia Beach Interdenominational Ministers Conference – has no time for the disruption.
“You’re not going to sit here and heckle the congresswoman. If you can’t sit here and be respectful, get out.”
It seems the church had prepared for trouble, with its security staff gathering near where he is sitting. But most of those present seem to be on Luria’s side, greeting her with more applause as she answers further impeachment questions.
It’s a different – and noisier – picture outside, where a small demonstration by Trump supporters is taking place at the front of the church. They hold signs saying “impeach Elaine” and “Pelosi’s puppet” . They get some honks from passing cars.
Protester Richard Egger says: “I’d prefer her to focus on legislating – we have a lot of problems in Virginia Beach. This is unconstitutional. The same people wanting impeachment were against it when it was Bill Clinton.”
Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, says the event is part of a larger counter-impeachment campaign Stop the Madness, targeting those Democrats who “jumped in with both feet to join Nancy Pelosi”.
“They want to try to take down the president,” he says. “They’ve not given up trying to undo the 2016 election.”
One woman who’s been in the town hall event has come outside after the section on impeachment.
Holli Martir, 50, says she’s an independent – she’s wearing a Trump hat, but she says she bought it for her son (however, she does later join the pro-Trump protesters outside).
In her eyes, Trump has “done nothing wrong”. “The president’s job is to speak with foreign leaders,” she says. “He’s trying to get world peace and he’s taking care of Americans. I think she just doesn’t like him.”
Back inside the church, about half of the questions on impeachment turn out to be supportive of Luria. One which isn’t asks why she’s focusing on the issue at the cost of all else.
“We’re focused on a lot of things in this district and in this country,” the congresswoman replies. “It’s very unfortunate we find ourselves in this situation.”
And she’s asked why her party would seek to remove Trump when her party was “guilty of so much” in what was described as a “power grab for the Democrats”.
“We have elections every two years. If you don’t like who is representing you, you can vote them out,” is her response.
Speaking outside the event, voter Sheila Edwards says while it’s “imperative to pursue this”, she’s worried about saying she’s in favour of impeachment itself as “we live in a very divisive time”.
She said she had been afraid of what to expect from the meeting – due to the reaction she gets from a bumper sticker she has, saying “I care” (a reaction to Melania Trump’s “don’t care” jacket).
“I’ve had people scream at me over that, a sticker,” she says, shaking her head.
Ms Edwards would prefer if the “bread and butter” issues like healthcare and gun legislation could be looked at – saying her daughter is afraid to go to school. This area suffered a mass shooting only in May, in which the pastor of this church lost his son.
But she says of impeachment: “I don’t see a way around it. I’ve been reading the materials myself.”
Who is Elaine Luria?
- The moderate Democratic congresswoman defeated incumbent Scott Taylor – a Republican – in 2018, flipping one of the most politically divided districts in Virginia
- A native of Birmingham, Alabama, she is a graduate of the US Naval Academy
- She retired at the rank of commander after two decades in the Navy, making her the longest-serving active duty member in the House Democratic caucus
- Luria and her husband, Robert Blondin, have three children. The couple owns The Mermaid Factory, where customers can decorate mermaids and other figurines.
Susan Potter says she believes the president is losing support in Virginia Beach.
“I’ve had people come up to me and apologise for voting Trump” she says, adding: “We’ve reached a state of critical mass. Even among former Trump supporters. This is a serious country and we take our government seriously.”
Her husband Eric adds that he appreciates Luria “being an influence, and a tipping point in this discussion”. He adds that many were “on the fence” in 2016, when Trump was elected. On impeachment, he says “the fact that moderates came out in favour could be an influence”.
Many say they trust Luria, with teacher Elinor Wynter saying: “She’s not someone who jumps on a bandwagon. She’s pretty level-headed. She thinks through things.”
For some, it’s her background that instils this trust. Virginia Beach is built on the military, with jets ripping the air with such frequency locals don’t even look up as they pass.
But at the town’s Pembroke Mall the next day, one shopper, out for the day with her three-year-old son, says she thinks military families may turn against Luria.
Victoria Geissinger, a mother of three, said: “I understand the investigation but I don’t think it makes him look guilty, honestly. It’s part of his job to investigate anybody who might be doing the wrong thing. The military is the number one crowd she’s going to lose. They’re going to support the head of state no matter what.”
The morning after the town hall, Luria is back at work.
She’s been speaking at an event helping local veterans improve their skills and find work. It’s the kind of issue she would rather be dealing with, if impeachment wasn’t on the table.
“I thought it went well,” she says. “I expected people to have positions on all sides of the issues. People get emotional and maybe a little bit rowdy.
“I saw about a dozen people in the audience that looked like they didn’t agree, who were vocally saying ‘boo’ or ‘I don’t agree with you’. And one man made a few loud comments. But I felt it was a good opportunity to state my opinion.
She says she’s had 420 calls to her offices in the past 10 days – about 60% have been in favour of her decision.
And as for those recently launched attack ads? “Bring it on,” Luria says with a smile.
She admits this is a “particular issue that’s very divisive”.
“But I don’t think it divides everything,” she says. “There always will be common ground. I wish we could focus on that.”