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[COMMENTARY/WATCH/LONG READ] My Day in MAGAVille

Washington State’s 3rd district, located in Clark County, sits just across the Columbia River from the liberal enclave of Portland, Oregon. Clark was decidedly Blue when I moved here in 2001, but has become glaringly Red in the 20 years that have elapsed. A haven for the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, and other fringe groups that have ties to evangelical Christianity, the rural parts of Clark County could easily be mistaken for the Deep South

As I drove north on State Route 503 towards the aptly named town of Battle Ground for my scheduled interview with the Trump-endorsed Joe Kent, who’s challenging Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera-Beutler, I saw more of a Trumpian presence than even before the 2020 election. Trump 2020 flags hung from businesses, trucks, even a scooter, as well as the homes I passed.

When I learned that Florida Man Matt Gaetz would be traveling all the way across the country to stand next to Joe Kent at a private fundraiser as well as a public rally on Labor Day, my first instinct was to protest it, to be completely transparent. But then I remembered I have this gig, and I have a legit reason to get the chance to speak to both Gaetz and Kent because I live in this district and pay taxes here. After exchanging texts with Byron Sanford, Kent’s campaign manager, I was set to interview them at a local coffee shop a few hours prior to the fundraiser. However, just before I left for the interview, I learned that I would only be speaking to Kent, as Gaetz wasn’t “doing any press” and would be traveling with a security detail. Something tells me I wasn’t vetted until the last minute, because a lot of what transpired on Monday seemed unprofessional and thrown together at the last minute, and it’s possible Gaetz was on board until he checked me out.

 

Knowing I didn’t want to enter MAGA territory alone–witness what happened to journalist Alissa Azar recently in Olympia, Washington, at the literal hands of the Proud Boys–I recruited my friend Nate to run the camera for me because I wanted to capture every word accurately. I also brought my friend “@ResusPatriot“, whom I’ll be referring to as “RP” from this point forward. RP is a veteran who lives in Eastern Washington, and he was curious to learn about his fellow veteran, Kent, as well as get the chance to get up close to Gaetz. I would later be most grateful for RP. At the coffee shop where we met–Joe Kent was maskless, as were most of the customers–a sign was posted that very clearly told us where we were.

Despite my reputation on Twitter for being aggro towards all MAGA, I wanted to have a real conversation with Joe Kent, and I got some real answers out of him. Kent spouts the full MAGA party line, from abortion to Afghanistan to voting rights. He’s a telegenic and youthful candidate; at 41 and a veteran, Kent is the ideal MAGA mouthpiece to influence politics at the local level, including the school boards. With his partially rolled-up sleeves offering a glimpse of his fully tattooed arms (just what he’s hiding up those sleeves is up for debate), tousled hair, and an impish grin, Kent could easily pass for Rand Paul’s younger brother. But the comparisons to dubious Republicans don’t end there, as I came to learn.

Kent isn’t the only MAGA in this race looking to primary the popular Herrera-Beutler, who’s been re-elected to her seat in Congress five times by the voters in WA03. I asked about the other MAGA candidate, Heidi St. John, who’s reneged on their agreement that the Trump-endorsed candidate would be the one who stays in the race, and the other would drop out to lend their support. St. John isn’t going away just yet, and her presence in the race would potentially split the MAGA vote and give Herrera-Beutler an easy path to another nomination. Kent dismissed Heidi St. John in the way men have always dismissed women. “I’m ignoring her to focus on Jaime,” he told me. When I asked if he was prepared to go on record that he would accept the results of the 2022 midterm elections, he said he was already calling for an audit, before a single vote has been cast. And if that’s this candidate’s take, Democrats need to be prepared to hear it from all of the others who are challenging their seats.

We sparred a bit over that, as well as abortion and the details surrounding his wife Shannon’s death. Killed in action in Syria on January 16, 2019 (hence his Twitter handle), Shannon Kent’s remains were met at Dover Air Force Base by Donald Trump, one of the few times he met the planes returning home with American military casualties. It was there that Joe Kent was introduced to Trump and soon became a part of the Trump 2020 campaign effort. Joe Kent now accuses the “Democratic establishment” of preventing the full troop withdrawal Trump wanted and therefore fully blames them for Shannon’s death. I reminded Kent that a full withdrawal would have violated the Geneva Convention and left our allies, the Kurds, vulnerable to slaughter by Erdogan, which was why the bill to prevent the troop withdrawal was introduced; 129 Republicans voted with the Democrats to pass it. Kent described them as “establishment” as well. “Kevin McCarthy voted for it,” I said. “Kevin McCarthy is protecting Jaime Herrera-Beutler,” Kent shot back.

So Kevin McCarthy has lost favor with Dear Leader, Dear Reader. Remember that.

Joe Kent has received some powerful endorsements ever since being anointed by Trump. Aside from Gaetz, Kent has gotten the nod from former General Michael Flynn and his son Joseph, as well as some of the more prominent members of the GOP like Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene. He’s already done interviews with the likes of Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Steve Bannon. He leans heavily on the Big Lie and the “America First” platform. When I asked him about QAnon and the violence that the Proud Boys always create wherever they go, including in our district, Kent firmly and unequivocally denounced them and any other violence at his rallies or in the streets. He also said he would call out anyone he saw intimidating anyone at any of his rallies, an important point to remember.

After our interview ended, I asked Joe offhand–but not off the record–if he was vaccinated, and he hesitated. “I’m the ex-wife of a doctor,” I warned him with a smile, “so you can’t tell me it’s a HIPAA violation, because I know it’s not.” He said he wasn’t vaccinated and had no plans to do so, because he’s already had COVID19. “You can get it again,” I said. “So can vaccinated people,” he parried. “Yeah, because of UNVACCINATED people,” I replied.

After we part ways–amicably, it should be noted–we all took a break and I met up with RP a couple of hours later to go to the private fundraiser, which was allegedly going to be held just down the street from the coffee shop, in a public facility next to a skate park. Twitter user @TNGISTHEBEST (whose real first name is Cassie) contacted the venue and was told no such event was on the books. When I asked Byron Sanford whether or not the event was legit and permitted, he told me yes and would send me the verification, but hadn’t as of this writing. RP opined it was bad optics for someone accused of sex trafficking teenage girls to stage an event next to a skate park full of teenagers, including girls, and I couldn’t argue with that logic.

RP and I met Cassie outside the facility, where she was the only counter-protestor. A small group of Joe Kent supporters lingered at the front door, but when the clock hit 4:05 and no one had arrived, I texted Byron to ask where they were. He responded with a different address 10 minutes away. It all felt very sketchy as my Siri directed us deep into a rural area dotted by huge houses. We eventually found the spot, where a long line of cars was parked along the road leading to a large house. Despite what Joe Kent had told me just a few hours prior, there was clearly a QAnon presence at this private fundraiser, as well as some hella racists. These photos have been sent to the Joe Kent campaign for comment, but no reply was sent in time to meet my deadline.

 

 

Three men stood at the edge of the lawn and prevented us from getting any closer, despite the fact that we’d been given the address. Joe Kent’s Field Director, Ozzie Gonzalez, crossed the lawn to talk to us. Matt Gaetz was refusing all interviews, we were told, but I was the only one outside the fundraiser who seemed remotely like the press. No matter what we asked, Ozzie’s answer was, “We’ll see you at the rally” at the Clark County Fairgrounds, where Ozzie promised us a “prime spot right up front, right in front of the stage.”

Here’s the sign that greeted us when we reached the entrance. Shades of Spinal Tap for sure.

RP and I set up close to the flatbed they’d set out as a “stage” on the dirt in front of two bleachers. Again, there was zero press there. RP and I believe the local media was never contacted or alerted to Matt Gaetz’s presence as a deliberate choice. They clearly only wanted “their people” in attendance. From the moment we arrived, RP and I were watched by a whole bunch of shady characters. They passed out pieces of paper to each other that from my perspective had a list of names on them, but I couldn’t see clearly enough thanks to the glaring sun. Many of them wore clear earpieces and were communicating with each other, but none of them were wearing any kind of official uniform or identification. These guys had eyes on me at all times.

RP and I slowly came to realize that Joe Kent and Matt Gaetz were doing everything they could to control this event, which explained the small turnout.

Cassie had followed us to the rally location, still alone, still undeterred. Throughout the rally, she was consistently approached by Kent supporters who were definitely aggressive towards her. To her credit, she never backed down. In fact, she yelled louder.

The longer the rally went on, the more RP and I were being watched. If he ever left my side for any reason, people moved closer to me. And despite Ozzie’s promise, I wasn’t allowed close to the flatbed, but RP was. They wanted me isolated. Other people in the crowd filmed me as I used my own camera to film them.

Matt Gaetz bloviated all of the MAGA Greatest Hits: Trump won the 2020 election, they’re going to impeach Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (it was so hard to not scream “THEN YOU GET PRESIDENT PELOSI!” but I didn’t, Dear Reader, because I was still rolling all professional). I also captured a photo of the newlywed Captain and Mrs. Venmo. You can see we keep it classy out here in Clark County.

The longer we stood, the more unsafe I felt. People seemed to be alerted to our presence. Joe Kent was wrapping up his speech when I quietly said to RP that we should pack up and get out before the crowd could surround us, and he agreed. Even if there were only about 100 or so attendees, I could easily glimpse how it all could go sideways, and how fast it could happen. One person yelling one order would have been enough. It was the January 6th pre-game in miniature, a slice of a Trump rally, an immersion into a world where I was seen as Other, as an outsider, in my own county.

Before we left the grounds, RP and I each checked in with Cassie to make sure she was okay, and that’s when I started getting followed. A group that included several women started yelling at me, and I yelled at them to back off. One of the women asked me if I was in Olympia last weekend, alluding to Alissa Azar’s harrowing encounter with the Proud Boys. “When is it ever okay for men to put their hands on a woman without consent?” I yelled back. “Never, that’s when!”

RP was still on the grounds when I decided to walk over to one of the two parking lot attendants/security guards, both of whom were Black men who work for the private security company employed by the Clark County Fairgrounds. When we rolled in, we had let him know we weren’t “with these MAGA people”, we were there to cover the event. During his speech, Matt Gaetz called Critical Race Theory “racism”, which made my blood boil. “I know you’re just doing your job,” I began, “but what’s your take when you hear that white Republican guy speaking on behalf of Black America? Because I can tell you I was as not okay with it as not okay gets.” He laughed and thanked me, and then he told me he thinks it’s important to listen to the other side. “That way, we know what we’re up against,” he said, tipping me a wink. As we talked, a MAGA woman walked up right behind me, holding a Trump flag with a pole fashioned out of a baseball bat. I gave her a glance but didn’t move. Intimidation is their favorite toy and I wasn’t going to play. I simply raised my voice louder and thanked him for his time. As I walked away, I noticed she stayed behind to speak with him.

The rally had officially ended by this point, and people had begun heading out to the parking lot. As I walked to RP’s car, four people began trailing me very quickly and closely. At first, I was unaware because RP was live streaming me to Twitter and I was talking about my conversation with the security guard. But then RP pulled me through the rope separating the parking lot from the public ground that those four people were restricted to, as they weren’t being allowed inside the official event. One of them took picture of RP’s license plate and threatened to dox him. RP captured it all on video. Click through this tweet and forward to about the two-minute mark to watch it all play out.

When I woke up on Monday morning, I intended to interview Joe Kent and Matt Gaetz and write only about that. But as the day progressed and I personally experienced the exact kind of intimidation Joe Kent claims to abhor, the story became very different. My intention was to have this story be the first in a series covering my district, as the race will only get more interesting from here as Kent gains more MAGA attention. But now that I’ve been filmed and threatened by people acting on Joe Kent’s behalf, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to put myself in that situation again. Not even with a wall of guys like RP with me.

However, I have contacted Jaime Herrera-Beutler’s office and will hopefully get the opportunity to speak with her about what I experienced in this district, as well as what her primary challenger is saying about election integrity. Brent Hennrich, the Democratic challenger, has also agreed to sit down with me to offer his rebuttal to everything Joe Kent says in our interview, which is posted in full below.

Just as I was finishing this piece, Matt Gaetz quote tweeted me and called me “Karen”. He’s never acknowledged me before, he ducked my interview, and then he decided to virtue signal his followers on me. I’ll have a day or so of people saying terrible things about my appearance, which is super mature. But this is the mentality of the Republican Party.

Me to Joe Kent yesterday: you’re not at all concerned about the optics of standing next to Matt Gaetz?
Joe Kent: Nope.

This is MAGA.

This is the full interview with Joe Kent. HillReporter thanks Nate DiNiro for offering his services to film the discussion.

 

 



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