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
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.
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.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) talks to constituents at theManna Food Drive at a Giant supermarket in Silver Spring.
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), left, hugsMaria Lapard during an event at her office in Las Vegas as detective Kenneth Lindsay stands guard.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) holds an event at theMidtown GlobalMarket inMinneapolis.
Berkley listens to a constituent during her “Congress on Your Corner” gathering.