The “non-verbal town hall” is GOP congressman’s plan to deal with disrupters

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 03: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) gets a 'fist bump' from fellow member of the House of Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) after Ryan was re-elected January 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. Seven new members of the U.S. Senate and 52 new members of the House Representatives took their oath of office as the new Congress was seated. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

PENSACOLA, Florida — Rep. Matt Gaetz has a plan.

The Florida Republican, like other lawmakers around the country, is holding events in his district Thursday and is worried about protesters.

The thought has crossed Gaetz’s mind that protests could completely disrupt him from being able to speak at all at his town hall. So he’s created what his staffers call the “non-verbal town hall,” reminiscent of a scene from the movie “Love Actually.”

Gaetz has printed out part of a speech that gets some of his message across onto giant boards that he will hold up if he is unable to get a word in.

The signs thank the crowd for allowing him to serve. Some of them preemptively call out “professional liberal protestors” for trying to disrupt him from talking to voters. The signs are heavy and take two trips out to be loaded in a car to accompany him Thursday, February 23rd.

Gaetz has a 12-hour blitz of meetings with constituents through part of his district in northwest Florida. Tuesday and Wednesday, his staffers were planning their events, as the calls kept coming in.

“The phones are ringing off the hook because they sent a campaign to call and harass us today,” Gaetz’s chief of staff, Amanda Cogan, told CNN.

It’s one of several campaigns to protest the freshman congressman. Some dissenters call the office upset about a bill Gaetz introduced in early February that aims to kill the Environmental Protection Agency by 2018 (he thinks the money and responsibility should go to the states), or his unwavering support of President Donald Trump and his plans to do things like repeal and replace Obamacare.

Gaetz pronounces his name like it sounds from the phrase “open the flood gates” — and that is exactly what he plans to do Thursday. The congressman from Florida’s panhandle has been planning this day since December, soon after he was elected and sworn in. He is 34, single, and the son of former Florida state Senate President Don Gaetz. He has seen his Republican colleagues met with protests and boos at their town halls in the days leading up to his.

“I think part of the job in public service is not just living in your own echo chamber where you talk to your own supporters about their views,” Gaetz told CNN. “But where you give people the opportunity, who disagree with you, to step forward, yell at ya, wag their finger in your face, and the job of the public servant is to take it. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

While Gaetz knows about multiple plans to protest at several of his nine events, he’s not letting them stop him from holding public meetings and a town hall in Santa Rosa county, part of his district of about 750,000 people.

‘I won’t melt’

Gaetz met with his mostly female staff in a temporary office in Pensacola two days before what he calls “Open Gaetz Day.”

Huddled around a conference table, the team poured over every detail of the day that starts at 7 a.m. and has no scheduled end time for his 7 p.m. town hall. There will be raffle tickets to randomly draw the names of the people who will get to ask questions, to show that there is no favoritism. There is a discussion of whether or not people who show they live in the district should get priority entry. They talk about whether the radio station he’ll be doing a live interview has the capability to take live caller questions.

One thing Gaetz is concerned about: signs. At one event, there is no stage and possibly big crowds.

“What I’m worried about is – since this is all one level – if people come there and hold up their ‘Matt Gaetz is awesome/Matt Gaetz is a jerk’ signs, the people behind them won’t be able to see or know what’s going on,” Gaetz said.

“We have a ‘No signs’ sign,” replied district aide Laura Rakas.

Gaetz is satisfied with this and moves on to share notes that he has typed up on his cell phone. He leans back in his chair and looks at his staffers.

“There will be circumstances where someone will, like, you know, throw a bottle of water on me. Or someone might grab me or someone pushed me the other day. Don’t worry about that,” Gaetz said. “If people throw water on me like they’ve been saying on social media they’re going to do, I won’t melt. I’m not the wicked witch. It’ll be fine.”

The only way the day can possibly go bad, Gaetz believes, is if someone loses his or her cool.

Gaetz also says that an empty stomach can be a recipe for dissent.

Of the midday event, at a local barbeque restaurant, district aide Laure Rakas asked him, “Do you want them to go ahead and start making their plates and start sitting down to begin eating?”

“Yes. Never hold people back from the food,” Gaetz said. “Crowds are always more docile when they’re fed.”

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