As elected officials miss town halls, constituents ask: Where are our congressmen?
February 22, 2017 8:34 AM
Shannon Cairone of Canonsburg speaks out at the town hall event Tuesday in Washington.
Carissa Mallory, left, comforts her crying daughter, Janell, on Tuesday at an Affordable Care Act town hall for Rep. Tim Murphy on Tuesday at the Washington County Courthouse. Mr. Murphy, an Upper St. Clair Republican, did not attend the event.
Brenda Dare, born and raised in Washington County, expresses her concerns at an Affordable Care Act town hall event Tuesday.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was supposed to be a chance to “Join Representative Tim Murphy as he discusses his Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.” But Mr. Murphy, an Upper St. Clair Republican, canceled a workshop scheduled to take place at Duquesne University on Tuesday afternoon.
The move disappointed several constituents who hoped to press Mr. Murphy on a variety of issues. But it just the latest move in a nationwide cat-and-mouse game playing out between Congressional Republicans and liberal critics incensed by the outcome of the 2016 elections.
“We were disappointed to learn that Congressman Murphy’s long-planned tour of the Duquesne University Psychology Department and discussion with students … had to be cancelled today,” said a spokeswoman for Mr. Murphy. “Duquesne staff brought to our attention at the last minute that organizations not affiliated with the university were planning to disrupt the discussion and campus security was unable to guarantee the safety of all involved.”
Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare said the school “heard through social media that some individuals not associated with campus might be attending and asking questions unrelated to the topic of the congressman’s remarks. As a courtesy, we informed the congressman’s office of this possibility.” But by 9:34 Tuesday morning, “we informed the congressman’s office that ... there would be extra officers at the event. ... At all times Duquesne University was prepared to go forward with the event and to provide security.”
Mr. Murphy’s office notified the school of the cancellation about two hours later, she said.
A dozen people were standing outside the student union when the event was set to begin — about half the total number who had showed up, they said. They were baffled that anyone could see them as a threat.
“He’s not the man I voted for in the past,” said Randy Sarner of Upper St. Clair. “When he was a young man, I was very excited by him. … I ought to be able to walk in your office and say hello. Now you’re running from me?”
“I took a day off work to come here and ask questions,” said Angela Wateska of Scott Township. She said she and a small contingent of her “412 Resistance” group had planned to attend, “and it’s really disappointing that he isn’t here.”
“I’m a psychologist and I’m very interested in what he’s done for mental health,” said Nick Flower of Mt. Lebanon, who praised the work of Mr. Murphy, himself a psychologist, in that field. “But it’s not the only issue I care about.” He and others said they wanted to stress concerns about potential Russian influence on President Donald Trump, among other issues.
Community members react to discussion at an Affordable Care Act town hall for Rep. Tim Murphy on Tuesday at the Washington County Courthouse. Mr. Murphy, an Upper St. Clair Republican, did not attend the event. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)
Congress is in recess this week, a time when legislators traditionally meet with constituents to hear concerns back home. But while Mr. Murphy held a “telephone town hall,” in which residents call in with concerns, in mid-January, neither he nor any other members of the southwestern Pennsylvania delegations are holding them.
Republicans are clearly wary of holding the events for fear that Democrats will disrupt them, taking a page from Tea Party protests common during the Obama administration.
In a statement, the office of Congressman Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said that Mr. Kelly prefers “more intimate gatherings” to “the often-tumultuous physical town hall format,” meeting constituents across the district in “places where his constituents work and spend time.” Mr. Kelly also conducts quarterly telephone town halls, in which voters call in with their concerns: Some 25,448 constituents participated in the calls during his last term, his office said, and another is scheduled to take place the evening of Feb. 27.
The office of Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, issued a similar statement, saying he “has hosted dozens of group meetings with constituents” and that “continues to elicit their feedback through frequent tele town halls, through which he has reached tens of thousands of constituents each call. He responds to petitions that come through the office as well as thousands of individual emails and letters each month. He also monitors social media closely.“
But in the backlash to Donald Trump’s election last fall, demands for a face-to-face opportunity to confront officials have become increasingly common across the nation.
On Tuesday, three separate town hall events were held in Mr. Rothfus’, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Murphy’s districts — without their participation. The events were organized and promoted by critics, including members of the Service Employees International Union, although union leaders said the organizing was done at the grassroots level.
More than 100 people attended an event in Beaver Borough Tuesday evening billed as “Our Town Hall With or Without Keith Rothfus.” Mr. Rothfus, R-Sewickley, was invited to the meeting to discuss the Affordable Care Act with constituents, but he did not show up.
Beaver resident Janet Hill, 54, talked about “the frustration of not feeling like my representative is hearing us.”
“It bothers me that as my official elected congressman he doesn’t make himself available,” concurred Eileen Hencher, 58, of Sewickley, adding that she’s sent several emails about her concerns to Mr. Rothfus and has not received a reply.
In Washington County, an event dubbed a town hall “with or without” Mr. Murphy was held Tuesday afternoon. About 80 people attended the meeting, but Mr. Murphy did not.Mr. Murphy has not held a town hall event, even though Congress is in recess this week. He did hold a telephone town hall in mid-January, but those on hand at Duquesne said that wasn’t the same thing.
“A town hall is really a chance to talk face-to-face,” said Angela Wateska of Scott Township. She said she and a small contingent of her “412 Resistance” group had planned to attend.
“I took a day off work to come here and ask questions, and it’s really disappointing that he isn’t here.”
The region’s lone Democrat, Mike Doyle of Swissvale, said he’d had several give-and-takes with constituents since the last election, most recently on Feb. 9. This week, though, “I’m taking a vacation I planned last summer because I never believed Donald Trump would be president.”
While Mr. Doyle said “we have a responsibility to make ourselves accessible,” he declined to criticize his colleagues for preferring telephone town halls.
“Some of these districts are 10 counties big, and the telephone town hall has the advantage of people not having to leave their homes,” he said.
Asked whether he’d had a bad experience at a town hall, he said, “The most I can remember is a spirited back-and-forth. I’ve not been scarred by any forum I’ve ever held.”
Chris Potter: email@example.com or 412-263-2533. Staff writer Andrew Goldstein contributed.
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