I'm not a fan of Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who made an ass of himself by penning an open letter to the leaders of Iran while trying to undercut the President of the United States - back when he was just two months into office. Cotton proved quickly that he was a shameless showboat intent on becoming an important player on the national political stage. But as of last night my stock in Cotton has gone up, if only marginally.
Last night Senator Cotton did what few Republican office holders have been willing to do - he manned-up and bravely marched into a "town hall" to face a hoard of concerned citizens. The event, held in a Springdale, Arkansas, school gym, brought in over two thousand citizens who had opinions to share with their senator.
Tom Cotton is definitely in the minority when it comes to Republicans appearing at town hall meetings. Some have cancelled the public gatherings when it became apparent that people were fired up and planning to attend. Some have moved meetings to remote locations within their districts in the hopes that the long drive would keep people from attending, and yet others have suddenly discovered that they had scheduling issues and were needed elsewhere.
My own Republican senator, Ol' Roy Blunt of Missouri, will not be having any town halls back home. A member of his staff announced that Blunt "does not do" town halls. When pressed as to why, the flack snapped back, "He just doesn't, that's why!"
Just because a congressman or senator refuses to meet with his or her voters, however, does not mean that the town hall won't be happening. Several localities have determined that the voices of constituents need to be heard, whether their politicians are within earshot or not.
Rep Adam Kinzinger, a Republican congressman from Illinois, announced through a staffer that he would be unable to attend a town hall organized by a local progressive group because he was already scheduled to be somewhere else at that time. Undeterred, the group chose to represent Kinzinger at their meeting with an empty suit - and the show went on. An empty suit was also used to represent Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania when he declined to attend a public event in his state.
An empty chair with a sign saying it was reserved for Rep. Andy Harris, a republican congressman from Maryland, served as a stand-in for that politician when he failed to attend a local event in his district.
Cardboard cutouts are also being used to "stand-in" for absentee politicians. Darrell Issa, the richest member of Congress, did not take the bait when locals ran a full-page newspaper ad in San Diego encouraging him to appear at a locally-scheduled town hall meeting. When Issa didn't show, he was replaced with a life size cutout of Waldo from "Where's Waldo" with Issa's face taped over Waldo's face.
Colorado's Republican senator, Cory Gardner, said that an influx of calls to his office were from "paid protesters from other parts of the country." So when a town hall was held in Colorado, one which Gardner did not attend, one of the things participants did was to hold their Colorado driver's licenses in the air to show that they were, indeed, Coloradans.
The notion that people attending these town halls are being shipped in from other places and paid to protest has become standard fodder for Republicans as they struggle to understand and explain the shifting ground of politics in America. Many have never been exposed to the noise of an organized opposition before, so in their minds it can't represent a significant part of their political reality. The quick answer is to minimize the protest by saying it isn't real - it's other people from other places - being funded by some insidious secret funders.
Fox News talker Sean Hannity recently posted a tweet which implied that somebody was secretly funding all of the protests which have been springing up around the country. No sooner had his tweet been posted than Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban fired back a response, albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek:
The truth is, of course, nothing as glamorous as what Hannity or even Cuban allude to. The people attending these events are, by and large, local registered voters who just happen to not agree politically with the elected officials and who have vested interests in matters on which the politicians will be working - such as health care. And no, they are not being paid by anyone to seek to be involved in the democratic process. Facing up to people with strong opinions takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, but their opinions need to be heard and acknowledged - and their questions need to be answered. If a politician doesn't have what it takes to appear before his or her constituents in an open forum, then that public servant needs to find a new line of work."It's me Sean. I had the TriLateral commission pitch in, then i went to the Illuminati. They were really cheap, so Stewie covered the rest"
Serving in Congress is about more than just pocketing cash from lobbyists.
If Ol' Roy Blunt or Congressman Jason Smith ever decide to host a town hall, Pa Rock will be there - and no one will be paying him to attend. Being an informed voter is an important part of the democratic process, and neither Ol' Roy nor Jason have the right to deny me access. They work for me - and they work for us - and all of us have a right to expect open accountability from our employees!