Re­turn­ing to pub­lic, with more cau­tion

Af­ter the shoot­ings in Tuc­son, law­mak­ers re­view emer­gency plans and con­front a new aware­ness of the pos­si­ble dangers they face

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND DAVID A. FAHREN­THOLD

las ve­gas — When Rep. Shelley Berkley de­cided to hold a “Congress on Your Corner” event here Fri­day, her plan was to prove that fear hadn’t changed the way Congress works. She wound up prov­ing the op­po­site.

Berkley’s event in a small of­fice build­ing off the Strip fea­tured a fold­ing ta­ble, two flags and 60 con­stituents. And at least 10 po­lice of­fi­cers. “I hope this isn’t the wave of the fu­ture,” the Demo­crat said as she ar­rived and saw the of­fi­cers. She hadn’t asked for that level of pro­tec­tion: The Las Ve­gas po­lice de­cided she needed it. “This should not be the way we have to do busi­ness in this coun­try.”

This week, it was.

The shoot­ing of Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords (D-Ariz.) in Tuc­son a week ear­lier left the pow­er­ful on Capi­tol Hill grap­pling

with a very hu­man fear: Just how risky, they won­der, is a life spent shak­ing hands with strangers?

For mem­bers of Congress, it was a week spent re­as­sur­ing fam­ily mem­bers and mak­ing emer­gency plans with their staffs. Whose job is it to call 911? Who knows CPR? They read old hate

mail, re­played mem­o­ries of threats.

Should we have re­ported that guy?

A few mem­bers talked about arm­ing them­selves. One sug­gested en­cas­ing the House’s pub­lic gal­leries in Plex­i­glas.

By the end of the week, a hand­ful started putting on their smiles and go­ing out in pub­lic again. Pol­i­tics is built in part on il­lu­sions, but this was a hard one: Do some­thing that was pre­vi­ously ut­terly rou­tine — and pre­tend it still was.

“I thought it was very im­por­tant to send a sig­nal tomy con­stituents and let them know we’re open for busi­ness,” said Berkley, a con­gress­woman as loud and pug­na­cious as her city.

In ad­di­tion to the po­lice, a man stood be­hind Berkley as she met small groups of res­i­dents. It was her son Sam, 25, who had de­cided she needed him, too.

His­tor­i­cally, the most dan­ger­ous part of a law­maker’s job has been not vi­o­lence, but travel. At least 29 mem­bers of Congress have died in ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing planes, au­to­mo­biles and ships. One, Rep. Larry McDon­ald (D-Ga.), was killed when a Soviet fighter jet shot­down his air­liner in 1983.

His­to­ri­ans count six law­mak­ers who have been killed by strangers. They in­clude a Repub­li­can con­gress­man shot down in Arkansas in 1868, a House mem­ber from Texas who died in a riot in 1905 and two sen­a­tors, Huey P. Long (D-La.) and Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), who were as­sas­si­nated. Rep. LeoRyan(D-Calif.) was killed in 1978 by mem­bers of the Jon­estown cult in Guyana. An­other law­maker while fight­ing in the CivilWar.

Other attacks have oc­curred, in­clud­ing one in 1954 when Puerto Ri­can na­tion­al­ists shot five mem­bers from the House gallery. All sur­vived. In 1998, a gun­man killed two Capi­tol Po­lice of­fi­cers near an en­trance to the build­ing.

Congress mem­bers say they knew — at least in the­ory — that their job might put them in dan­ger. To lower their risk, they used lit­tle tricks: Hold town hall meet­ings in churches or schools, where peo­ple are so­cial­ized to be­have. When some­one goes on a wildeyed rant, start your an­swer by thank­ing them. It low­ers their tem­per­a­ture.

This week, how­ever, it oc­curred to some that they might not have un­der­stood the dangers af­ter all.

On Thurs­day, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) sat down with her staff to talk about the Jan. 8 shoot-ings in Tuc­son. She got a shock: One aide opened a drawer and pulled out a folder of letters, re­ceived in re­cent years, that they had never shown to the con­gress­woman.

One said, “You will soon be as­sas­si­nated.” An­other said, “ They know where you and your fam­ily mem­bers live.” A third said, “It is time for the pa­triot move­ment to take things into their hands.”

Fresh­man Rep. Rick Berg’s wife and mother called to ask about his safety. “ This has been a real tran­si­tion in our life,” he said. “I’d never con­sid­ered this, and I don’t think they’d ever con­sid­ered this, a lifethreat­en­ing job.”

Berg’s biggest fear is that con­stituents will be too fright­ened to at­tend pub­lic events fea­tur­ing mem­bers of Congress, say­ing that the killing of 9-year-old Christina Tay­lor Green in Tuc­son will give pause to any­one con­sid­er­ing tak­ing a child to a civic ac­tiv­ity such as a town hall meet­ing.

“As a par­ent, I’d think twice about it, cer­tainly if I were go­ing to one in a big city,” said Berg(R-N.D.).

This week, the House’s ser-geant-urged mem­bers to con­tact law en­force­ment of­fi­cers in their dis­tricts. He also sug­gested in­stalling a “panic but­ton” at lo­cal of­fices so staff mem­bers could call po­lice with­out pick­ing up a phone.

Other mem­bers thought of more dras­tic mea­sures. Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) said he would con­sider car­ry­ing his Glock 23 more of­ten so that, if nec­es­sary, he could shoot back. “I’d hate to be in a sit­u­a­tion where I don’t have the tool to do what needs to be done,” he said.

Al­though the Capi­tol is pro­tected by road­blocks, metal de­tec­tors and hun­dreds of armed po­lice, Rep. Dan Bur­ton (R-Ind.) wants an­other layer. An aide said Bur­ton plans to rein­tro­duce a bill that would en­close the House’s pub­lic gal­leries in some­thing like Plex­i­glas, the kind of ar­range­ment that shields liquor-store clerks.

Some mem­bers — concerned about pro­tect­ing them­selves and the con­stituents who come out to meet them — have sought ad­vice from fresh­man Rep. Michael G. Grimm(R-N.Y.), whoworked as an un­der­cover agent for the FBI.

Grimm al­ready views the world as though he were a hunted mob­ster: He sits fac­ing the door, looks for emer­gency ex­its and notices when peo­ple tug at their waist­lines. Too much, and they could be car­ry­ing a gun. But, af­ter the Tuc­son shoot­ings, Grimm thought his staff needed more prepa­ra­tion.

He asked one staff mem­ber, a re­tired New York po­lice de­tec­tive, to lead quar­terly classes in which peo­ple are as­signed roles in a dis­as­ter.

“Know what your func­tion is,” Grimm said: These could in­clude per­form­ing CPR, call­ing 911 or mak­ing de­tailed mental notes of an at­tacker’s height and hair color. The de­tec­tive could try to calm a po­ten­tial at­tacker. “And know mul­ti­ple func­tions — in case one of the vic­tims, God for­bid, is the re­tired de­tec­tive.”

Mem­bers said their fam­i­lies be­gan call­ing in the hours af­ter the at­tack, press­ing them: Could this hap­pen to you?

“I don’t tell them when I re­ceive threats. I don’t want them to worry,” said Rep. Zoe Lof­gren (D-Calif.). But this week, the con­ver­sa­tion was un­avoid­able: Be­sides the Gif­fords shoot­ing, there were news re­ports about a 2009 case in which a man threat­ened to at­tack Lof­gren on the street.

“Most of this is not to be taken se­ri­ously,” the congress woman told her fam­ily. “But, you know, when you say that . . . they’re think­ing, ‘Gabby got shot on Satur­day.’ ”

On Capi­tol Hill, the week passed in a foggy sus­pen­sion. There was some talk of gun con­trol: Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose hus­band was killed in a shoot­ing ram­page in 1993, said she plans to in­tro­duce a bill that would ban high-ca­pac­ity gun mag­a­zines.

Only at the end of the week did law­mak­ers be­gin to talk about other po­lit­i­cal is­sues, as Repub­li­cans planned for a vote on re­peal­ing the newhealth-care law.

And, as the days passed, a few law­mak­ers ven­tured out again for pub­lic events. In fact, mem­bers said they heard con­stituents wor­ry­ing about them.

“ They’re thank­ing me and telling me to keep safe,” Lof­gren said. “ That’s new.”

Se­cu­rity pre­cau­tions var­ied. In Sil­ver Spring on Satur­day morn­ing, Rep. Donna F. Ed­wards (D-Md.) didn’t alert po­lice be­fore she made an ap­pear­ance dur­ing a food drive at a Gi­ant gro­cery store. Ed­wards ar­rived with only two of her staff mem­bers, chat­ted and play­fully bagged gro­ceries for an hour, then left.

In Minneapolis, Rep. Keith El­li­son (D-Minn.) drew about 100 peo­ple to his own “Congress on Your Corner” event. As he sat at a wooden ta­ble and took ques­tions, two po­lice of­fi­cers stood a few feet away.

“I’m very in­sis­tent that we have vis­i­ble, strong se­cu­rity,” said El­li­son, one of two Mus­lim mem­bers of Congress, who­has re­ceived threats and an­gry letters. “Not formy­self, I don’t think I need any. I think peo­ple need to feel safe and be safe.”

El­li­son said that, for now, a vis­i­ble se­cu­rity pres­ence made peo­ple feel at ease. “We will re­main vig­i­lant, but the ne­ces­sity to have two uni­formed peo­ple there may not ex­ist in a month or two,” he said.

In Las Ve­gas, Berkley’s con­stituents waited in fold­ing chairs, then went in to see her alone or in small groups. They wanted to talk about fore­clo­sures, taxes, Medi­care ben­e­fits, or just to have their pic­ture taken.

“Af­ter the tragedy in Ari­zona, we’ve got to show sup­port for these peo­ple,” said Cliff Arnold, 67, are tired hard-rock miner who had cometo ask Berkley’s ad­vice about a prob­lem with the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. He thanked her for hold­ing the event. “ They’re just as vul­ner­a­ble as a sol­dier in Iraq. It takes a lot of courage to do this work.”

Berkley said she was glad she held the event. Talk­ing to one con­stituent, she said, “We’re go­ing to do an­other one of these.”

Then she turned to the plain­clothes of­fi­cers stand­ing around her. “Sorry, guys,” she said.

ruck­erp@wash­post.com fahren­thold@wash­post.com

Fahren­thold re­ported from Washington. Staff writ­ers Paul Kane, Ben Per­sh­ing, Lois Ro­mano and Sand­hya Somashekhar in­Wash­ing­ton and Nia-Malika Hen­der­son in Minneapolis con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Rep. Donna F. Ed­wards (D-Md.) talks to con­stituents at the­Manna Food Drive at a Gi­ant su­per­mar­ket in Sil­ver Spring.

MAR­LENE KARAS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), left, hugsMaria La­pard dur­ing an event at her of­fice in Las Ve­gas as de­tec­tive Ken­neth Lind­say stands guard.

JEFF WHEELER/STAR TRIBUNE VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rep. Keith El­li­son (D-Minn.) holds an event at theMid­town Glob­al­Mar­ket in­Min­neapo­lis.

MAR­LENE KARAS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Berkley lis­tens to a con­stituent dur­ing her “Congress on Your Corner” gath­er­ing.

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