Their faces are plastered all over television commercials.
Their names are in the newspaper and on social media.
Their positions on hot button issues such as abortions, immigration and guns are public knowledge.
America’s raw political divide, easy access to firearms and open society put political leaders across the country at risk for attacks like the ones carried out in Virginia last week against Republicans practicing baseball and in Arizona in 2011, when Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot at a meet-and-greet event outside a shopping center in Tucson.`
“It’s getting less and less rational for a politician to be among the regular people because it is getting more and more dangerous to be out among the people,” said Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. “(Public officials) are targets in the way that normal people are not.”
On Wednesday James T. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill., opened fire on Republican Congress members and others practicing at an Alexandria, Va,. baseball field for the annual game between Democratic and Republican members. Four people were wounded, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., the third highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. House.
Hodgkinson, who was a volunteer on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last year, reportedly was disgruntled about President Donald Trump and Republicans in general. He was shot dead by Capitol Police.
The shootings rekindled a discussion that is becoming all too common: Is it safe to be in the public eye?
“If we are candid about our current political culture I can understand why (Congress) members may want security present,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies. “The town hall meetings have grown excessively raucous and heated. (The shootings) will only accelerate that feeling of insecurity.”
Security consultant and retired Montgomery County Sheriff Dave Vore said the shootings won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who serves the public.
“That will be something that is in the back of all their minds when they are encountering their constituents, or the general public,” said Vore, now a Clay Twp. trustee.
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A security detail of Capitol Police was on hand in Alexandria only because Scalise is in congressional leadership. Members of Congress are not routinely provided with security details, but some believe the shooting will boost calls for providing all members with some level of protection.
It’s not clear what that would cost, or even how effective it would be.
“Keep in mind there are 535 members of Congress,” Smith said. “Even a two-person detail is over 1,000 agents or officers. Of course, one or two may not be sufficient if several assailants with automatic weapons show up.”
‘This is a democratic society’
Jeff Podracky, chief operating officer for Armada Ltd., a Columbus area security consulting firm, said short of hiring a team to guard them 24 hours a day, public officials should have a basic security plan and be aware of their surroundings.
“You got to have a plan and think that it’s possible it could happen to you and work accordingly,” he said.
“Public officials, rightly so, want to be out there in the public. They don’t want to be restricted with security details and some of the protocols that go along with those security details,” Podracky said. “They might even, more so now because of the political climate, get out there and get in front of their contemporaries and folks who put them in political positions. They don’t want some sort of barrier between them. So balancing that — being publicly available but also having the safety and security — it’s a tough balancing act. Again, it’s possible, but there are challenges.”
In the wake of the attacks, security measures will undoubtedly be reviewed and reassessed, said Bob Chabali, retired Dayton assistant police chief and former commander of the SWAT unit in Dayton.
“Most likely some events may even be canceled, just because of where we are today,” Chabali said. “You hate to think in those terms, because this is a democratic society.”
Both Smith and Devine said further isolation of political leaders from the people they serve would set a dangerous precedent.
“Inserting armed guards as a buffer between citizens and representatives sounds like a police state more than a democracy,” Smith said. “Democracy assumes equality between us, as citizens, and those we elect. This kind of security buffer would erode that.”
Calmer tone urged
After the attack Wednesday, politicians of all stripes said it is time to dial back the divisive, angry attacks that define American politics today.
“This shows the need either for better mental health services or for rhetoric to be toned back on both sides of the aisle,” said state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Washington Twp. “Both of those things are something that we need in our country.”
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said public officials are at a greater risk of being targeted for violence. “I think that is a result of this anger. That’s a result of this horrific incivility that is happening in the country today and that is not going to stop until someone dies. If there ever was a chance for Democrats and Republicans to stand up and say ‘Stop,’ this is it,” Luntz said.
Congressional leaders should stand together and pledge to find a way to “lower the decibel,” he said.
“There’s a lot of passion out there on both sides, and I hear from them every day,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “But we are all in this together, and we need to listen to each other and engage in a constructive manner, even those we may disagree with.”
Republican consultant Bob Clegg said the Alexandria and Tuscon shootings may discourage people from running for office and putting themselves and their family members at risk.
“My son works for the (Ohio House) speaker as a body man (an aide). It makes me wonder what kind of danger he could be in at some public event where some nut with a gun wants to shoot the speaker,” Clegg said. He added, “Social media has ramped this whole thing up and it has got to stop.”
‘It’s a lot more divisive’
Former state lawmaker Shannon Jones, a Warren County Republican, received threats in 2011 when she sponsored a contentious bill that would have gutted collective bargaining rights for public employees. While the debate raged, the Ohio Highway Patrol provided security to Jones.
As white-hot as that was in Ohio politics, Jones said it doesn’t compare with today’s climate. “It is a lot more divisive,” she said. “It’s just a more divisive culture.”
On average, nearly 115,000 people in America each year are shot in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, accidental shootings and police intervention, according to the Brady Campaign, a non-profit that advocates for stricter background checks for gun purchases and more prevention efforts to curb gun violence. The organization is named after Jim Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot in the head in the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan in March 1981. Brady died in 2014.
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While acknowledging an increasingly toxic political climate, Devine cautioned against making a direct connection between political polarization and the shootings in Alexandria and Tucson.
It is, he pointed out, not a new thing for politicians to be the target of assassins. World War I was sparked by a Serbian nationalist’s murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife in 1914. Four sitting U.S. presidents were killed by assassins. Reagan and 11 other presidents faced assassination attempts or efforts that were foiled before they occurred, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Washington Post tallied seven members of Congress who since 1831 were killed or injured in attacks or, as was the case in two instances, duels.
Portman, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, all said they have no intention of letting fear insulate them from the public.
“It’s my job to get out and talk to people,” Brown said. “I will continue to go out into the public and listen to the people.”
“As elected officials, a key aspect of our job is regularly engaging with our constituents, but we also have to make sure these engagements are a safe and secure environment for everyone involved, especially the public,” said Portman, noting that he regularly involves Capitol Police and local law enforcement for security at his public events.
Added Whaley, a Democrat running for governor: “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I didn’t do porch tours, if I didn’t walk the neighborhood.”
“I think we have to do our job,” she said. “And being with the people is the job we signed on to do.”
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