This time Democrats providing the anger at town halls

Audience members react to a question asked by an audience member during a town hall meeting held by Rep. Scott Taylor at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Audience members react to a question asked by an audience member during a town hall meeting held by Rep. Scott Taylor at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Va., Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Republicans say there are better ways to interact with constituents than at public gatherings.

Rep. Mike Turner was out of the country last week, but that didn’t stop the demand for a town hall with the Dayton Republican.

Turner, a member of the House Armed Services and House Intelligence Committees, was in Europe, receiving briefings at NATO and the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters. But Tuesday, several dozen protesters gathered outside his Dayton office, clamoring for a chance to grill the congressman.

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Turner, R-Dayton, is far from an anomaly. The presidential election was not even four months ago. President Donald Trump is just over one month in office. And in congressional districts in Ohio and across the nation, voters are clamoring to be heard.

They crowded into a raucous gathering for Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas last Wednesday, with raucous supporters and opponents shoulder-to-shoulder. Cotton, a Republican, gamely answered questions. CNN broadcast it live. They huddled at town hall meetings in Virginia, Georgia, California and elsewhere.

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They were in the Columbus area, organizing town halls for Reps. Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers, even though neither man was available, crowding a Unitarian Church and a Hilliard building that traditionally holds weddings.

And they were in Marion, Ohio, where Rep. Jim Jordan arrived for a scheduled President’s Day tour of Warren Harding’s home only to be greeted by a group of boisterous constituents. Jordan, R-Urbana, took questions for 45 minutes on the steps of Harding’s home.

“That’s the way it works in a democracy,” Jordan said afterward. “You get to weigh in.”

Although Jordan welcomed questions at the event, some constituents expressed frustration that they have to enter their ZIP code in order to be able to email him via his congressional website.

“Due to the large volume of US Mail, email and faxes I receive, I am only able to accept messages from residents of the Fourth Congressional District of Ohio,” his site reads.

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The tumult in some ways mirrors the first few months of President Barack Obama’s presidency, when the tea party emerged seemingly out of nowhere, concerned about a massive stimulus bill aimed at reinvigorating the economy and Obama’s health care law.

Back then, town halls were packed with diehard conservatives — and often included Republican members of Congress.

Today, the faces have changed: Many of those gathering in protest are worried about the possible repeal of Obama’s health care law, saying they fear they’ll lose insurance.

They’re also concerned about Trump. They worry about his order denying refugees a haven in the United States, about a travel ban involving Muslim-majority countries, about the 45th president’s bombastic style and conservative politics.

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Rob Scott, founder of the Dayton Tea Party and now a Kettering City councilman, sees parallels, but said the tea party demonstrations occurred months after Obama was sworn in. These protesters, he said, haven’t given Trump a chance.

“They’re a little bit early to the game, I think,” Scott said, adding the demonstrations feel like an extension of the election.

There’s another parallel between now and 2009: both times, detractors accused the protests of being fake grassroots ginned up by party loyalists.

Back in 2009, then White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the anger “manufactured.” This week, White House spokesman Sean Spicer echoed those comments in a White House briefing.

“I think some people are clearly upset, but there is a bit of a professional protester, manufactured base in there,” he said.

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New to the game

While some appearing at the town halls are Democratic candidates or activists, others say they’re relatively new to the political game.

Before this year, Kathy Guest, an artist in South Bloomingville, Ohio, only participated in politics once: To knock on doors for Obama in 2012. But now, she’s not only participating in Stivers’ tele-town halls, she’s driving to Columbus weekly to protest outside Sen. Rob Portman’s Columbus office.

“People are to the point where they totally understand that they’re not being listened to,” she said.

Portman held events in Moraine, East Liberty, Sidney, Holland, Toledo, Clyde and Fremont. He held a town hall meeting with employees at the Whirlpool plant in Clyde. He was scheduled to go to Cleveland, Columbus and outside of Youngstown before week’s end. But even he didn’t dodge criticism — progressives who bought tickets to the Lincoln Day Dinner in Sandusky were denied entry because of their political affiliation.

Portman, said a spokeswoman, “welcomes the increased engagement from his constituents, both on the Right and the Left…the opinion of every constituent is valued.” She said access to the event was controlled by the organizers.

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Elsewhere, people are fighting to make sure lawmakers understand that they’re not paid protesters as Trump once tweeted.

“I am one of the organizers and I can’t afford to pay them,” said Rob Weidenfeld, a spokesman for a group that huddled outside a Chamber of Commerce breakfast last Thursday where Rep. Steve Chabot was scheduled to appear.

‘We want feedback’

Despite the lack of town halls, Republicans say they are not ignoring their constituents.

Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, had more than two-dozen meetings scheduled with constituents last week, said his office spokesman, Alexei Woltornist. He said the congressman plans to take that input into consideration when he’s back in Washington, D.C., voting and working on legislation.

Katie Webster, a spokesperson for Rep. Brad Wenstrup, said the Cincinnati Republican “makes it a priority to meet with constituents as often as votes and the House schedule allow.” The last event was in January, she said. The office also polls district residents through an annual constituent service survey.

Brian Griffith, a spokesman for Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, said the town halls the office used to have would draw just 30 to 50 people even after mailers were sent to 100,000 homes.

Tele-town halls are much cheaper — about $9,000 compared to $50,000 for a regular town hall, Griffith said. Each conference call features live questions, and those on the conference call are invited to leave questions afterward via voice mail, he said.

“It doesn’t serve us any purpose not to get feedback from constituents,” Griffith said. “We want feedback. We really do.”

Tiberi has been meeting with small groups in back-to-back meetings in the district, including with some of the very people who spoke at the town halls, his office says. Stivers recently held a tele-town hall — a conference call with constituents — and will hold another March 15. Critics complain that the latter is more of a press release than a true face-to-face interaction, with callers screened in advance in order to limit the more hostile questions.

Tele-town halls have become popular, however. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, has scheduled one for March and Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, held one last week.

Alex Jackson, a freshman at Ohio University and a member of the College Democrats, said he’s tried to get Stivers to hold a town hall in Athens, a liberal enclave in the safe Republican district. Stivers, he said, can win his district without winning Athens County.

But that doesn’t mean the more liberal corner of his district doesn’t deserve to be heard, he said.

“We just kind of feel ignored,” he said.