My Night in Town Hall HellRepresentative Steve Israel
By Steve Israel
(The New York Times) – Unruly crowds at town halls are taking members of Congress by surprise. Many are so intimidated that they are refusing to show up. President Trump recently tweeted, “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!”
They are not sad, Mr. President, but mad. Not long ago, I was on the receiving end.
Until last month, I represented a fairly quiet district on Long Island. For the first nine years of my time in Congress, my town halls could barely fill a closet. We held them in firehouses and libraries. The events were civil and sleepy, and my interns usually outnumbered the constituents. I’d show up in my gleaming congressional lapel pin and requisite red tie, ready for that Rockwellian view of a citizenry’s public discourse with a national leader. Then, my heart would drop when I saw mostly empty metal folding chairs.
All of that changed when the Tea Party rolled in.
In 2009, my Democratic colleagues began reporting that their town meetings were being disrupted. Civil discourse was being replaced by brawls. In some cases, police officers were brought in to protect the politicians.
Not in my district, I thought. I couldn’t even bribe my constituents into coming with free bagels and coffee.
Then it began: an avalanche of calls demanding to know when and where I’d conduct a town hall. Some of the voices had decidedly Southern accents (and I don’t mean the South Shore of Long Island). My interns usually took callers’ names and addresses, but strangely, many of the people who said they needed to attend a town hall didn’t want to leave a phone number so we could tell them when and where they could satisfy that urge.
We set an evening and searched for a site big enough to accommodate the crowd, settling on the theater at a community college. When I arrived, I saw so many people that I thought the college had scheduled a sporting event at the same time. That’s when I realized that I was the sporting event.
People were tailgating. Yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were hoisted everywhere. The Suffolk County Police Department was out in force.
Perhaps the lowest point of the town hall was when one member of my staff was taunted as being a socialist. She happens to be an Army veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had arranged for the League of Women Voters to moderate the meeting so I couldn’t be accused of selecting favorable questions. That worked out fine until someone in the audience accused the League of Women Voters of being socialists, too.
Almost immediately I noticed something unusual. Every couple of minutes, people at the end of every few rows of seats would spring to their feet, then turn to the rows immediately behind them and urge others to stand — like orchestrating a wave at a baseball game. It was the first time I’d witnessed syncopated booing.
For two hours, I was called more names and booed at more times than I thought possible. At the merciful end, my politician’s instincts took hold and I approached the edge of the stage to shake hands with a group that swelled against it. Then I felt a tug on my arm. It was a police officer, surrounded by three colleagues, who said: “We think it would be a good idea to leave. Now.”
Later I saw a memo by the Tea Party Patriots giving instructions to crowds like this across the nation. It was essentially a manual for what their strategy should be at a town-hall meeting: Scream loudly, be disruptive and make clear that a significant portion of the audience does not support the agenda.
The night of my town hall, I knew the crowd was effectively stage-managed and that many people there didn’t live in my district. But I didn’t make an issue of that, as President Trump does now. It was my obligation — my job — to listen to disagreement. The people there were Americans expressing their anger and anxiety; exercising a constitutional principle to petition their grievances to government. It wasn’t a pleasant night, but it was a patriotic one.
So my advice to those members of Congress who are hiding out or delaying is this: You can run for re-election, but you can’t hide from the American people.
The longer you wait, the louder it will get.