At­tack height­ens law­mak­ers’ grow­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mas­caro

WASH­ING­TON — The voice­mail mes­sages left at Ari­zona Repub­li­can Rep. Martha McSally’s of­fice were ex­plicit: “Our sights are set on you. Right be­tween your [ex­ple­tive] eyes.” An­other said, “Your days are num­bered.”

A fe­male caller re­cently warned Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Texas) that he would soon know her name — be­cause she was com­ing for him.

And af­ter a gun­man opened fire Wed­nes­day on Repub­li­cans play­ing base­ball — crit­i­cally wound­ing House Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — a staffer of GOP Rep. Clau­dia Ten­ney opened the New York con­gress­woman’s email to find this omi­nous mes­sage: “One down 216 to go.”

As the coun­try’s po­lar­ized po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment has in­ten­si­fied since Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion, mem­bers of Congress re­port re­ceiv­ing more death threats than ever be­fore.

That has led to re­newed calls for beefed-up se­cu­rity and other changes to en­hance mem­bers’ safety, par­tic­u­larly when they travel away from the pro­tec­tive en­vi­ron­ment of the Capi­tol. The shoot­ing only added to a grow­ing sense of ur­gency

al­ready felt by law­mak­ers in both par­ties, who in re­cent months have faced un­usu­ally loud and bel­liger­ent au­di­ences dur­ing town hall meet­ings in their dis­tricts.

“The se­cu­rity of mem­bers of Congress is em­bar­rass­ingly in­ad­e­quate,” said Rep. Cedric L. Rich­mond (D-La.), who was prac­tic­ing with the Demo­cratic base­ball team some miles away from the Repub­li­can team Wed­nes­day morn­ing. Rich­mond, who as a chair­man of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus has re­ceived nu­mer­ous threats, has raised the se­cu­rity is­sue re­peat­edly with House lead­er­ship of both par­ties.

“I know it costs money, and I know the Amer­i­can peo­ple want us to be as fru­gal as we can, but there are real costs as­so­ci­ated with mem­ber se­cu­rity,” he said.

Wit­nesses have said the at­tack, in which three oth­ers were also shot, would have been much worse had Scalise not been present. As a mem­ber of the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, he is one of the few law­mak­ers as­signed a se­cu­rity de­tail, which im­me­di­ately con­fronted the gun­man un­til po­lice ar­rived.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told law­mak­ers dur­ing a pri­vate ses­sion on Capi­tol Hill af­ter the shoot­ing that he was con­sid­er­ing their pro­pos­als.

Among the ideas be­ing dis­cussed are rule changes that would al­low law­mak­ers to dip into their of­fice stipends to pay for se­cu­rity or ex­pand their abil­ity to use cam­paign funds for such pur­poses.

One law­maker, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an early Trump backer, said on the ra­dio in Buf­falo that he would start car­ry­ing a gun when he was out and about, de­spite firearms re­stric­tions in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Many law­mak­ers say they are less con­cerned about their time in the cap­i­tal, where they are un­der the watch­ful eye of po­lice who pa­trol the Capi­tol grounds, than about in­ci­dents back home. They worry about pro­tect­ing thinly staffed dis­trict of­fices that are of­ten sim­ply store­fronts in lo­cal shop­ping cen­ters.

Se­cu­rity is ex­pen­sive, and even the most promi­nent law­mak­ers would be hard-pressed to pay for pri­vate teams to trail them at events or stake out their homes, where many law­mak­ers have re­ceived per­sonal threats on their fam­i­lies.

At the same time, sur­round­ing them­selves with body­guards and a se­cu­rity perime­ter risks alien­at­ing con­stituents who are ac­cus­tomed to open-door poli­cies at dis­trict of­fices and be­ing able to chat up their rep­re­sen­ta­tives af­ter a church ser­vice.

Congress was back at work Thurs­day with hear­ings and votes, but the mood was somber. Wounds were vis­i­bly ap­par­ent as the base­ball team’s coach, Rep. Roger Wil­liams (R-Texas), and his staff mem­ber Zachary Barth hob­bled on crutches through the halls. Feelings were raw at a morn­ing meet­ing of House Repub­li­cans. Law­mak­ers of both par­ties pledged to do bet­ter at ton­ing down the rhetoric.

Threats on law­mak­ers are noth­ing new; for ex­am­ple, an Elvis im­per­son­ator sent an ap­par­ently ricin­laced let­ter to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in 2013, and the next year a bar­tender sug­gested spik­ing the drink of then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

But since Trump en­tered the White House in Jan­uary, law­mak­ers say they have re­ceived a bar­rage of emails, Face­book posts, tweets and phone calls threat­en­ing them with bod­ily harm.

McSally, who rep­re­sents the Tuc­son-area dis­trict where for­mer Demo­cratic Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords was shot in the head dur­ing a Satur­day morn­ing mee­tand-greet out­side a gro­cery store in 2011, said she was stunned at the death threats she re­ceived in May, par­tic­u­larly for an area so fa­mil­iar with grief. Six peo­ple died in the at­tack against Gif­fords.

“It’s not about me; it’s about what’s go­ing on in our coun­try and our com­mu­nity,” McSally said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day. In her case, the caller was swiftly ar­rested — he told au­thor­i­ties he was an­gry at the con­gress­woman for vot­ing in sup­port of Trump.

“My life has been in dan­ger in the past,” said McSally, a for­mer Air Force fighter pi­lot and the first fe­male to com­mand a fighter squadron in com­bat. “I was def­i­nitely not afraid. But I was also sad­dened. And just deeply con­cerned about what I see go­ing on in our so­ci­ety right now.”

With­out ad­di­tional fund­ing, many con­gres­sional of­fices re­port tak­ing their own pre­cau­tions.

Staff for Kinzinger, the Illi­nois Repub­li­can, say they are keep­ing more-de­tailed logs of the threats that come in al­most daily via so­cial me­dia. Some are non­spe­cific re­marks, such as “eat [ex­ple­tive] and die.” Oth­ers, like the caller who warned she was com­ing to get him, are turned over to po­lice.

Ten­ney, who took of­fice in Jan­uary from a cen­trist dis­trict in up­state New York, re­ceives threats “pretty reg­u­larly,” her spokes­woman said.

When she par­tic­i­pated in a Me­mo­rial Day motorcycle ride, one writer on so­cial me­dia ex­pressed hope that Ten­ney would break her neck. An­other hoped her son, a Marine, came home “bagged.” One caller left 70 of­fice voice­mails in a sin­gle night, rail­ing on mul­ti­ple top­ics.

“It high­lights the fact that anony­mous peo­ple spew­ing hate on the In­ter­net, elected of­fi­cials in roles of lead­er­ship spew­ing hate and just a gen­eral sense of hate around the coun­try [is] grow­ing,” said Rich­mond, who was set to be the Democrats’ start­ing pitcher at Thurs­day’s ball­game. “It should be a con­cern to the whole coun­try.”

Alex Wong Getty Im­ages

IN­VES­TI­GA­TORS SEARCH for ev­i­dence Wed­nes­day at the ball field out­side Wash­ing­ton where four were shot at a GOP base­ball prac­tice. Phys­i­cal at­tacks on law­mak­ers are rare, but threats are in­creas­ingly com­mon.

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