WASHINGTON, D.C. — Republican lawmakers appear increasingly eager to avoid town hall-style events and seek less confrontational venues to engage with constituents as angry protestors mobilize across the country to disrupt public forums.
Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, fired-up constituents who oppose the dismantling of former President Barack Obama’s initiatives, including the Affordable Care Act, have aggressively confronted congressional Republicans at town halls. One congressman had to be escorted out of a town hall by police recently, while other representatives have been shouted down and interrupted by rowdy audience members.
Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York canceled an appearance at an event in April hosted by the Rogers Memorial Library in Southhampton. His spokeswoman, Jennifer DiSiena, told CNN that the event was “co-opted, renamed and rebranded by a group of liberal obstructionists.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is scheduled to appear at an event labeled as a “town hall” at the Fairview City Hall on February 21. But local activists noticed that details of the event recently disappeared from the Fairview website — a change that Fairview Mayor Patti Carroll confirmed to CNN in an email Monday morning.
Carroll said the event will still take place but that she requested that the announcement be removed from the Fairview website because she “felt the wording placed too much emphasis on town hall.”
Carroll explained that the “community meeting” is “not a Marsha Blackburn event,” and rather a “low key” gathering that other local elected officials were also invited to.
In a phone call with CNN, a Blackburn spokesperson said the congresswoman never intended to pull out of the event and that she will be in attendance as scheduled. But the spokesperson declined to characterize the event as a town hall.
“I think that we’re playing with semantics here — you can characterize it however you want,” the spokesperson said when pressed on whether Blackburn’s office ever intended the event to be called a town hall. “The event has always been on our end what it will be — and that is that she’s showing up, she’s going to talk to the mayor, give them a legislative update, talk to some other officials.”
Blackburn’s office, the spokesperson added, is not advertising the event and is only listed on their “internal schedule” as: “She’s stopping by Fairview” to meet with local official and constituents.
The antagonistic nature of these town halls has some GOP strategists advising lawmakers to steer clear of physical town halls. Last week and over the weekend, angry constituents confronted Republican lawmakers including Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Diane Black of Tennessee and Gus Bilirakis of Florida.
Mike Shields, former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, is advising members to hold telephone-town halls rather than physical ones. Giving protestors the opportunity to disrupt a public gathering, Shields said, is not politically “wise.”
“There are some members of Congress who feel pressure to hold a traditional town hall meeting because it has always been done that way,” said Shields, a CNN commentator. “They’re holding on to this antiquated, quaint notion of a Norman Rockwell painting of citizens interacting with elected officials. …. That simply does not fit into the modern context of how politics in a divided country operate and what you wind up instead is doing a huge disservice to those who show up thinking they’d get to ask questions.”
The increased interest and pressure is also leading some lawmakers to change their regularly scheduled meetings.
Zeldin’s office has changed the congressman’s office hours policy amid threats from protesters. In part because of the possibility of disruptions, the office hours at one of Zeldin’s satellite offices on Long Island are now by appointment only, DiSiena said, and the congressman is also preparing to meet with constituents in smaller group settings and continue hosting telephone town halls.