SALT LAKE CITY — A top Utah Democrat ripped Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Saturday for dismissing Thursday night's raucous town hall meeting as being fueled by paid protesters from out of state, not representative of his 3rd District constituents.
"He's out of touch with reality. He's out of touch with the political reality on the ground," said House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King.
King shared his complaints about Chaffetz after he and four other Democrats from the Utah Legislature attended a town hall forum at Westminster College.
The Salt Lake City Democrat criticized Chaffetz for not acknowledging there's a significant portion of his constituency angry with him for supporting President Donald Trump.
"If he thinks that there have been out-of-state people paid to come in and demonstrate or cause a ruckus or cause a fuss — really? What's the basis for that information?" King asked. "You can't say that kind of crap."
He said Chaffetz's response was "offensive on such a fundamental level," by not taking accountability or providing substantial information to back up his claims.
"This is the problem we've got with public officials in this country at this time," King said. "That line comes from Kellyanne Conway. That line comes from Donald Trump. That line comes from Sean Spicer. It's crap and we ought to call it out."
Conway is a counselor to Trump and Spicer is the White House press secretary.
Chaffetz's office declined a request for comment Saturday.
On Friday, Chaffetz said the estimated 1,000-person crowd that filled the auditorium at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights Thursday night — and an estimated 1,000 more protesting outside — was "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" than a reflection of his constituents' feelings.
In response to questions about who would foot the bill to fill the audience with outside agitators, Chaffetz told the Deseret News to "do some reporting" and described how one town hall attendee made it a point to say he was not being paid by a national Democratic organization.
Cottonwood Heights Police Lt. Dan Bartlett said Saturday some town hall attendees did tell officers they had come from out of state, but the majority appeared to be Utahns.
"The majority of people I talked to were from here, from all over Utah," Bartlett said.
When asked if he knew if there any paid protesters, Bartlett said: "Not that we could tell."
Cottonwood Heights police also reported Saturday that a small group of protesters were carrying firearms (allowed under open carry laws) and wearing bandanas over their faces outside of the town hall meeting, attempting to incite the crowd.
"They were telling people, 'We should rush the cops,'" Bartlett said, but he added that the group dispersed when police officers walked over to watch them.
None of them were arrested, he said.
While policy discussion centered on prioritizing education funding, environmental issues, and equal opportunity, the lawmakers also responded to questions from the audience that reflected frustration with the political reality Democrats face in Utah's Republican-controlled Legislature.
"I'm sick of playing defense. I want to play offense," said Salt Lake resident Kristen Butcher. "How do we find concrete, strategic and proactive ways where we can stop being dismissed?"
The Democrats urged more political engagement — like Thursday night's protests and the Women's March on the opening day of the 2017 Legislature — to force leaders to hear their demands.
That's when Butcher called out from her seat in the audience: "Then we're just dismissed. We're called paid protesters," referring to Chaffetz.
King and the other panelists — Salt Lake Democrats Rep. Joel Briscoe, Rep. Lynn Hemingway, Sen. Gene Davis, and Sen. Jani Iwamoto — sympathized with Butcher. But Briscoe added: "I don't think (Chaffetz) is winning that argument."
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she believes most of the town hall attendees were Chaffetz's constituents. During a legislative gathering held in Holladay Thursday night, she said many of her constituents said they planned on going to Chaffetz's town hall meeting instead.