Why Republicans Should Be Scared of Town Hall Protests

In one solidly red New Jersey district, anger at their congressman is bipartisan, focused, and organized.

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Feb 22 2017, 8:00am

Photo by Jeff Turick

Congress is in recess, which traditionally means that legislators return from Washington, DC, to their home districts to hear from their constituents. But more than 200 Republican representatives are skipping the town halls traditionally held during this time, apparently out of a desire to dodge rowdy attendees yelling at them about plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Donald Trump's scandals. In response, some people have chosen to protest against these lawmakers wherever they go—as some did to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday—or meet without their elected official present. And it's the latter option that may give politicians pause.

That became clear to me on Sunday, when I joined 180 people in a VFW hall in Sparta, a Republican-leaning town in the New Jersey exurbs, for an event organized by NJ 11th for Change. This nonpartisan grassroots group's goal is simple: It wants the district's longtime, once-moderate Republican representative Rodney Frelinghuysen to sit down and explain his recent voting record, which has been 100 percent in line with President Trump's agenda. But so far, Frelinghuysen, who has not held an in-person town hall since 2013, has declined.

"How can you possibly represent your constituents if you won't listen to them?" asked Debra Caplan, who is on the group's steering committee.

The group booked four now wait-listed venues for this week anyway, with 1,000 seats snatched up in 24 hours. In these "town halls," constituents ask questions that are recorded for the absent congressmen, livestreamed on social media, and posed to a panel of volunteer experts.

Reading some accounts, you might assume that these pointed events would be attended largely by liberals looking to humiliate their GOP representative. But I found myself sitting next to Sandy Fey, a longtime Republican voter. Fey, who said she had never before been politically active, was "very concerned" about the Trump administration, as well as Frelinghuysen's recent votes on reproductive rights. So far in 2017, the congressman has voted for a measure that would make it easier for states not to fund Planned Parenthood, along with bills allowing coal companies to dump waste in streams and some people with mental disabilities to buy guns—decisions unpopular in the hall.

Terry Bond, a 60-year old lifelong Republican, stood up and said, "There's a time to put country ahead of the party line." Bond recently registered as unaffiliated, she later said, to disassociate herself with congressional Republicans who want to end the EPA and seem intent on ignoring the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

These are the kind of Republican voters who stoke Democratic dreams of turning a red district blue. (Taking back the House of Representatives, which has been Republican since the 2010 midterms, would require winning 24 seats.) On paper, Frelinghuysen, the likable scion of an old New Jersey political dynasty, is a nigh-invulnerable 12-term incumbent who won almost 60 percent of the vote in 2016 and was recently made chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. But Trump won the district by less than a percentage point, a quirk partially explained by a 2011 redistricting that moved some very blue Essex County towns into the 11th. Seeking to capitalize on Trump's local unpopularity, the DCCC (the campaign arm of congressional Democrats) has placed Frelinghuysen on its 2018 target list.

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The Star-Ledger editorial board called grassroots groups like NJ 11th for Change a "gathering storm" for Frelinghuysen. NJ 11th for Change was sparked by a comment on a Montclair Facebook page, and now counts 6,500 Facebook members from across the district. Hundreds of constituents rally each Friday morning at the congressman's Morristown offices for "Fridays with Frelinghuysen." Possibly because the area is a bedroom community for many New York City media members, these gatherings have been featured by WNYC and the New York Times.

Some anti-Trump efforts have been criticized for being too aggressive or too strident with their rhetoric. But NJ 11th for Change seems to know how formidable niceness can be. On a recent Friday, members delivered a 2,800-signature petition asking for a town hall to Frelinghuysen's staff, along with a homemade iced cake. They have also handed the staff hand-crocheted shawls.

"We are not an angry mob," said Christine Clarke, a Hopatcong steering committee member who homeschools her four children. "I don't know why he'd be afraid of meeting with us, unless he's afraid of being confronted on his positions."

Frelinghuysen could not be reached for comment, but his staff released a statement that read, in part: "My goal is to continue the same civil discourse I have had with my constituents over the years. I will be continuing to visit all 54 communities in my district." He also encouraged constituents to provide their phone numbers for "teletown" hall meetings, in which the speaker controls questions.

Many found the response unsatisfying, particularly given Frelinghuysen's remarks on Trump's recent Muslim ban, which, while read as critical by some, were found lacking by group members I interviewed. "He didn't condemn the Muslim ban: He criticized the rollout of the ban itself," said Boonton township resident Farah Jan, who organized one of this week's town halls. Earlier this month, constituents from two mosques in Boonton joined the Friday crowds to ask Frelinghuysen to denounce what one attendee called the Trump administration's "Islamaphobia and hateful rhetoric." "Many mosque members voted for Frelinghuysen," Jan said, adding, "The community at large has supported him not knowing his positions."

NJ 11th for Change members from both parties told me that they had voted for Frelinghuysen or ignored his name on the ballot out of habit, and suggested that if voters took a closer look at his record—and were provided a decent alternative—he could be defeated.

Last week, NJ 11th for Change registered as federal SuperPAC and raised $10,000 in its first day of fundraising, presenting the vision of a grassroots challenge to Frelinghuysen—a formidable fundraiser who raised $2 million in his last campaign, but who garnered just 3 percent of those funds from small individual donations under $200.

Caplan, like others on the steering committee, told me that the group is focusing not on 2018, but the present: "Our position is that we want our representative to represent the district, and if he doesn't do that, then we may need to think about how we want to proceed."

The crowd in Sparta, which skewed white and middle-aged, had immediate concerns. One man read aloud a typed question on Social Security and FICA as if he were in a presidential debate. Others asked the panel about the impact of Scott Pruitt's EPA on New Jersey, how to fight hate crimes, the motive of financial reforms that favored Wall Street, and what to expect from Republican replacements for the Affordable Care Act.

Jordan Goldberg, senior policy advisor of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, (full disclosure: an old friend), told me that she found questions from constituents with chronically ill children particularly difficult to answer, as she is not an elected decision-maker like Frelinghuysen: "I wished he were hearing this and not me, especially because I have nothing but bad news."

Still, the event was laced with a can-do, civic optimism, with speakers encouraging participants to sign up for vacant county committee seats, talk to their state senators, and remember that representatives still need voters.

"The more people are coming to town halls, the more they're going to listen," said Craig Garcia, the political director of the NJ Working Families Alliance. "The pressure does work."

Sitting in the VFW hall, with the scrubbed floors and layout of a one-room schoolhouse, I began to feel as though the democracy machine that had been rusting out back was now suddenly in demand. Whether these meetings will develop into something lasting, it's too soon to say—but at least for one afternoon, folks were out of the online echo chamber and collectively trying to make the system work again.

Abby Rabinowitz teaches writing at Columbia University, and her work has appeared in the New York Timesthe Guardian, the New Republic, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and BuzzFeed, among other places.

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