NATIONAL HARBOR – The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) returned to National Harbor this year with new additions: a sitting president in attendance and protesters outside.
The annual gathering of conservative activists and leaders returned to the Gaylord Convention Center Feb. 22 – 25. Speakers included Sen. Ted Cruz, new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Vice President Mike Pence and, on Feb. 24, President Donald Trump. The morning of Trump’s speech, local groups including the Prince George’s County Young Democrats (PGCYD), the county’s chapter of the NAACP, SEIU 500 (a local service workers’ union) and the South County Democratic Club held a protest to indicate their opposition to the president’s agenda.
“Part of the reason that we came here was to say that here in Maryland, we’re going to make sure that we protect our citizens,” said Jessica Semachko, director of organizing and resistance with PGCYD. “Maryland does not support the Trump agenda. We are going to make sure that our citizens are protected and we’re going to keep on shining the light on the Trump agenda so people really know that what he says, he means, and we have to take a stand.”
Semachko and her fellow protesters – a few dozen in number – listed several pieces of the agenda they opposed, such as loosening environmental protections and potential collusion with Russia. But a common thread was the importance of preserving the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Protesters worry that if the law is repealed and large numbers of people lose insurance, it could jeopardize the new regional medical center planned for Largo.
“When hundreds of thousands of Marylanders are going to lose their health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, or a million-person county is going to be denied access to a quality healthcare facility, those are things that we need to make sure that not just Governor (Larry) Hogan but the president are on notice about,” said Bernard Holloway, a lifelong Prince Georgian who lives in Largo. “Part of why I’m here is to make sure that folks know that here in Prince George’s, we’re going to stand up for our rights and stand up for our access to healthcare.”
Fort Washington resident Heather Gratton said the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions and ban on lifetime and annual spending caps need to remain in place. She said she knows from experience why they are important.
“There’s millions of Americans that need this protection,” Gratton said. “I’ve seen other people with my rare disease, before the Affordable Care Act, lose their houses, and we can’t go back there. We just can’t.”
Several protest signs noted that the person holding it was not being paid to do so, which is a frequent claim made by Trump supporters – and one that was repeated at CPAC, according to media reports.
“It upsets me when they say we’re paid protesters. We’re just citizens that are worried about our neighbors and our friends,” Gratton said.
Several protesters also focused on Trump’s immigration policy, chanting their opposition to his promised border wall and the executive order he signed prohibiting people from certain countries from entering the U.S.
“We have to recognize what our history is here in America. We are a country of immigrants. We have always believed in helping each other,” Semachko said, adding the immigration raids are “forcing immigrant families into the shadows.”
“I think it’s just a situation of, do we respect all of our citizens? Are we willing to come together so that America is great for everyone?”
A small group of counter-protesters carrying “Blacks for Trump 2020” signs gathered shortly after the anti-Trump protesters arrived. Their spokesman, Michael Symonetze of Miami, Fla., said they wanted to show support for the president.
“We’re out here to show support to President Donald Trump, to make sure his policies go through,” he said. “All of them, but especially where he wants to get rid of regulation and take down taxes.”
Although the groups were opposed, the interactions between them were peaceful. The entire protest remained nonviolent, and many CPAC attendees seemed amused or just unfazed by the protesters’ presence.
“It’s expected. There are always protests. There were protests when Obama was president and now there’s protests when Trump is president,” said Alana Mastrangelo of Cleveland, Ohio.
Mastrangelo said this year’s CPAC programming was much the same as last year’s, but she did notice more Trump supporters this time.
“People were more for Ted Cruz last year,” she said.
Also outside the convention center were many Prince George’s County Police Department officers, including Chief Hank Stawinski. PGPD spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan said the chief is usually in attendance for big events like this, “making sure everything is going smoothly.”
“This is something that we’ve been planning for for weeks. This is not our first CPAC here. This is the first time that a president has shown up and we were prepared for protesters. We wanted everybody here to be able to express their freedom of speech, to express their views in a safe manner,” she said.
Inside the center, Trump spoke to an enthusiastic crowd and doubled down on many of the campaign promises the protesters were fighting.
“I always say Obamacare doesn’t work,” he said. “And the bottom line, we’re changing it. We’re going to make it much better, we’re going to make it less expensive.”
The president took a hard line on immigration as well and claimed the raids were focusing on deporting those engaging in criminal activity first.
“We’ve taken swift and strong action to secure the southern border of the United States and begin the construction of a great, great border wall,” Trump said. “As we speak today, immigration officers are finding the gang members, the drug dealers, and the criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out of our country. And we will not let them back in.”
Another controversial figure at CPAC was DeVos, who spoke on Thursday. She mentioned her signature issue, support for charter schools through voucher programs, which some fear will further weaken public education.
“The notion that I can choose where my children go to school because I can afford to pay for it but my fellow Americans can’t because they don’t have the same economic means, it’s just not right. It’s unjust,” she said. “We must and can do better for all Americans to provide each of them with an equal opportunity for a great education.”
Bob Ross, president of the county’s NAACP chapter, said education is a top priority for his organization.
“I am a product of Brown vs. Board of Education,” he said, referencing the landmark Supreme Court case that ordered desegregation.
Ross said after that case, private schools were formed in Prince George’s County to allow de-facto segregation to continue here even after the order, and he was concerned a charter school push could lead to more of the same.
DeVos said civil rights issues were the exception to her belief that the federal education department should have “a light touch.”