The first recess of the 115th Congress begins on Saturday, when Members will be returning to their districts for what is commonly referred to as “Home Week.” As usual, many members will be using their time to hold Town Hall events with their constituents. The Congressional news report at Roll Call notes that no fewer than ten Members have Town Halls scheduled during this week.
Here in the 10th district of Virginia, which spans an area from the Capital Beltway out to Winchester, residents have been clamoring for Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA) to hold a Town Hall since the beginning of the current session. After a series of high-profile missteps that included Comstock’s failure to show up for her public event during mobile office hours to which staff invited the public, she ultimately held a “tele-Town Hall” in early February.
This event, in which 6,000 callers participated, was widely panned as being long on words but short on details. Based on comments to the Congresswoman’s social media accounts, the event did little to quell constituent demands for actual face-time with their Representative. The eleven callers permitted to voice their questions raised concerns about Comstock’s vague ACA repair plan, Trump’s Muslim ban and the troubling legislation and Trump’s characterization of the federal workforce as a “corrupt bureaucracy,” along with Comstock’s vote to pass the Holman Rule.
If Comstock thought her hour-long phone call town hall would be enough, it appears that she was mistaken. Since the conclusion of her event, constituent calls for a “true and respectful” Town Hall have only escalated. According to the Washington Post’s report, residents began planning to hold a town hall event for Comstock, “with or without her” as early as a week ago. But based on quotes from her staff, it seems unlikely that the Congresswoman will attend, “due to a scheduling conflict. Through a spokesman, Comstock said she and her staff prefer to meet with small groups of constituents. ‘We have found that this personal setting has been conducive to civil and respectful discussions.’”
In the five days that have elapsed since then, grassroots efforts have continued to sprout up in several locations throughout the district. Today’s Loudon Times reports that, “On Valentine’s Day, a group of Comstock’s constituents attended her district office in Sterling to hand deliver hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards displaying messages and questions.” And per the Winchester Star, at least a handful of individuals planned to assemble on Friday outside Comstock’s office to protest “President Donald Trump’s agenda concerning the environment, immigration and health care. [C. Monroe, the demonstrations organizer] also wants to see Trump’s tax returns and for Congress to investigate his campaign’s communication with the Russian government.
Update: Photo of Winchester protest added:
At the same time as the Winchester assembly, several social media posts today announced that District 10 residents will be at the Congresswoman’s Sterling office to deliver a list of over 250 names and zip codes of constituents who are requesting a real Town Hall meeting.
UPDATE: Watch the video (listen to the audio, as Staff requested privacy due to valentines with children’s full names being in full view on the adjacent wall) of constituents delivering the Petition to Comstock’s Sterling Office Requesting In-Person Town Hall, 2-17-17:
Finally, in what may be the most concerted and high-profile community effort to date, it was announced that citizens from across Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, volunteering together in a loose affiliation known as “Indivisible VA District 10” will host a town hall on Friday, February 24th from 6:30-8:30 at the Sterling Community Center. While Congresswoman Barbara Comstock declined an invitation to participate (as reported in The Washington Post), the event will nonetheless focus on questions her constituents have about issues before the 115th United States Congress.”
Says Kristen Swanson, a ceramic artist from Lovettsville. “I’ve been calling and emailing her staff for weeks to try to find times and places of events where people can meet with her. We got tired of waiting for a response, so we set up our own event during the February work session when she is supposed to be hearing from citizens in her district.”
Update: Watch WUSA9 News Report on the citizen-led Town Hall:
Though the format of the event may be non-traditional, in the sense that Representative Comstock may not show up, it could end up becoming the norm across the country in districts where congressional members feel afraid to come face to face with angry constituents who have become galvanized by the recent controversies perpetrated by the Trump administration.
It may not be too difficult to sympathize at least a little with the prospect of facing angry voters. However, in the case of Comstock attending her citizen-led event, there is little to lose and a lot to gain. With a group size that is limited to 150 ticket-holders, there is less chance of being shouted down by an angry crowd if Comstock were to attempt to clarify and expand on her previous statements.
In fact, it’s more likely that by missing her own Town Hall, Ms. Comstock runs the real risk of permanently alienating a key section of her base: Republicans that voted for her, but NOT for Trump. In a district that carried Hillary by a wide margin but only gave Barbara a winning margin of 6 points, it’s doubtful that Comstock could retain her seat in 2018 without this group of voters.
Indeed, it makes one wonder what type of “scheduling conflict” could be pressing enough to keep her away.