In a statement released Tuesday, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert refused requests for him to hold a town hall meeting in person, citing an act of gun violence that happened in Arizona in 2011. Namely, the shooting of Gabby Giffords.
The statement from Gohmert, a Republican, read in part: “[T]he House Sergeant at Arms advised us after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at a public appearance, that civilian attendees at Congressional public events stand the most chance of being harmed or killed.” This reasoning is odd considering that Gohmert has held and attended many town halls since the January 2011 incident.
In August 2011, the congressman spoke at a town hall meeting in Tyler, Texas. Ahead of his August 2013 town hall meeting in the city of Marshall, he raved about the importance of time spent with those he represents. “I think America’s better served when we have times like this, not in session, [where] people go back home and hear from their constituents,” Gohmert said in an interview with The Marshall News Messenger. As recently as October 2016, it appears that Gohmert had no problem with “Congressional public events.”
The statement also references an advisement from the House Sergeant at Arms, implying that someone else recommended these events be avoided. The Sergeant at Arms is an officer of the House of Representatives, and presides over the security of congressional staff, among others. Wilson Livingood, who was the sergeant at the time of Gifford’s injury, could not be reached for comment. However according to a memo forwarded to The Outline by Timothy Blodgett, the current deputy sergeant, there is no explicit warning against representatives attending public events.
“If you are scheduled to attend a public forum such as a town hall meeting, rally, or any other public event, your Law Enforcement Coordinator should contact the proper law enforcement authority to coordinate any necessary police assistance at the event.”
This guidance seems pretty standard, probably because there’s no pattern of violence occurring at town hall meetings. The mass shooting that forever changed the lives of Gabby Giffords and 18 others six years ago is the only event of its kind directed toward government representatives that has occurred in recent history.
There has been an uptick, however, in disruptions at town halls. In the wake of a particularly turbulent election and extreme actions initiated by the Trump administration, local political organizations have been galvanized into action. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, faced a boisterous crowd earlier this month, with cries like “Do your job!” and “Answer the question!” interrupting him. While he debunked the characterization of the town hall as violent, the Utah Republican Party had a more hyperbolic take, calling the loud crowd an “organized mob” that was “violent.”
Most damningly, the Party declared: “Because of this clear demonstration of violence, if congressional members feel they cannot provide adequate security, they should consider tele-town halls to reach out to their constituents instead,” according to a news release quoted by The Washington Post.
Republican representatives have heeded this exaggerated rhetoric and are deliberately avoiding meetings in person. According to public town hall aggregator Town Hall Project, only 25 have scheduled traditional-style town hall meetings during this week’s House recess. The rest have opted for office hours and ticketed events, in which they’re less likely to face direct confrontation from displeased constituents.
Gohmert’s evasion tactics are therefore not new — they’re directly in line with the Utah GOP’s sensationalist recommendations. He’s even taken a page from the Trump doctrine and suggested that unhappy demonstrators are “violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign rallies were notoriously raucous, and he personally implored his supporters to take violent action against his opponent. And since everyone’s sharing strategies, Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, has found a dear friend in a man who used his Facebook page to urge his fellow “patriots” to deter potential Gaetz interrupters at all costs, with a preference for one subset in particular: “Concealed carry permit holders most welcome — don’t forget your ammo.”
Until Gohmert finds his own cronies, it seems he intends to continue dodging the people he serves. In place of an in-person town hall, he’s suggested a telephone town hall, a format in which people call in to listen to speakers and moderators on the line, where questions are screened before they’re asked. He argued that this would allow the elderly and the disabled to more readily participate in a town hall, but the most glaring upside for him is obviously that he could screen questions.
This tactic was extremely effective when used by former presidential candidate Ted Cruz in 2015. An aide on the line of a telephone town hall sponsored by Gun Owners of America reminded callers that “simple, single questions” were preferred. The aide then passed along to Cruz heavy-hitting inquiries like “What assurances do we have from you that you will uphold the Constitution?” and “Is it going to take us another constitutional attorney like yourself to get us out of the mess that we’re in?”
At least one person spoke out publicly against Gohmert’s cowardice: Gabby Giffords. In a statement, she said: “I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning my offices were open to the public. Ron Barber — at my side that Saturday, who was shot multiple times, then elected to Congress in my stead — held town halls. It’s what the people deserve in a representative.”