Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren’t being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan’s office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings.
“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”
In the first weeks of the 115th Congress, elected officials dropping by their home districts were surprised to find town halls packed to the rafters with concerned constituents. Caught off guard and on camera, lawmakers were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and provide a timeline on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
Now, many of them are skipping out on these events entirely. Some have said large meetings are an ineffective format for addressing individual concerns. Many others have, like the President himself, dismissed those questioning their agenda as “paid protesters” or radical activists who could pose a physical threat.
Voters turning out to town halls are pushing back hard on this characterization, arguing that they represent varied ideological backgrounds and have diverse issues to raise. Constituents unable to meet with their elected officials over the weekend told TPM that they’re not attending town hall events to make trouble. Instead, they say they want accountability from the people they pay to represent them.
Kim Mattoch, a mother of three and event planner, told TPM that she tried to go to a Saturday town hall in Roseville, California with GOP Rep. Tom McClintock but couldn’t make it in. The 200-seat theater hosting the event was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hundreds waiting outside.
“I’m a constituent of McClintock and a registered Republican in a very Republican district—though I don’t really align very well these days with the Republican Party,” Mattoch said in a Monday phone call. “So I wanted to go to the town hall because I legitimately had questions for the congressman.”
Mattoch said the protesters waiting outside had a wide range of “legitimate concerns.” She personally hoped to ask her representative about how the GOP was progressing on repealing and replacing the ACA and why House Republicans last week voted to kill a ruling aimed at preventing coal mining debris from ending up in waterways.
Yet McClintock told the Los Angeles Times that he thought an “anarchist element” was present in the crowd outside his event, and said he was escorted to his car by police because he’d been told the atmosphere was “deteriorating.”
Ramon Fliek, who attended the McClintock event with his wife, told TPM on Monday that police “were kind enough to block the whole road” to make space for the overflow crowd, and that he overheard protesters thanking law enforcement for “doing their jobs.”
“If you look at the videos from the event, you can’t get any notion that it was aggressive,” he said. “There was an older woman with a poodle that ran after him and it’s like, okay, the older lady with the poodle is not going to threaten you. I understand that he might want to give that impression, but it was very pleasant.”
Fliek, an immigrant from the Netherlands who has lived in the U.S. for over a decade, said he and his wife have questions about Obamacare repeal and Trump’s temporary ban on refugees as well as immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations, which McClintock has said he “strongly” supports.
“As an immigrant I have a hard time hearing this anti-immigrant rhetoric when for me it was so easy to come here,” he said. “Because I’m white, I’m from a wealthy country, I have a medical degree so I was well educated. So it’s really odd to hear people scream against immigrants that’s clearly based on their skin color and specifically the countries they’re coming from.”
Voters take issue with the line that protesters or town hall attendees are coordinated by Democratic groups or even paid to show up to events, as Trump and lawmakers like Rep. David Brat (R-VA) have suggested. They say this groundswell of energy is organic.
Small business owner Kori Huston joined hundreds of others Saturday at a protest outside the Palatine Township, Illinois Republican Organization’s monthly meeting, where Rep. Peter Roskam was scheduled to speak.
“It was entirely a grassroots effort, not organized by any party,” she told TPM. “This was not fundraised by somebody else. These were literally members of the district who want or have a conversation with Peter Roskam—not a national effort, not planted, none of that.”
Huston belongs to Action for a Better Tomorrow, a local progressive group that grew out of the pro-Hillary Clinton Facebook group Pantsuit Nation Illinois. She said her organization, like others present at event, including 6th District of Illinois – Holding Peter Roskam Accountable and Action 6th District Illinois, is one of many decentralized groups formed online by likeminded voters in the wake of the election.
Roskam’s spokesman, David Pasch, insisted there was a higher level of coordination at work, telling local TV station WMAQ that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was behind Saturday’s protest (Pasch, as well as spokespeople for McClintock, Brat and Duncan, did not immediately respond Monday to TPM’s requests for comment).
“These national groups are free to come into our community and exercise their first amendment rights, but it’s not going to keep him from meeting with constituents,” Pasch said. “He’s focused on representing the people of the western and northwestern suburbs in Washington, D.C., not the other way around.”
In a testy Twitter exchange, Pasch told a DCCC spokesperson who posted about the protest that Roskam was not trying to avoid constituents and mentioned that the congressman’s next town hall is scheduled for Feb. 13.
As of Monday afternoon, Roskam’s Facebook page for upcoming events was blank.
Source: Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet.