Va. clam­ors for Com­stock town hall

As U.S. urges more meet­ings, lo­cal group vows to hold fo­rum with or with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tive

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JENNA PORT­NOY

Af­ter ask­ing Rep. Barbara Com­stock (R-Va.) for weeks to hold a town hall to dis­cuss the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, a group of her con­stituents have de­clared they will hold a Com­stock town hall — with or with­out her.

The push is part of a na­tional wave of protests around the coun­try aimed at Pres­i­dent Trump’s poli­cies — in­clud­ing his ex­ec­u­tive or­der to tem­po­rar­ily bar refugees and trav­el­ers from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries from en­ter­ing the United States — and Repub­li­can plans to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

In nearly ev­ery Vir­ginia con­gres­sional dis­trict, Face­book groups have sprouted up for ac­tivists, many of them new to pol­i­tics, to dis­cuss strat­egy for flood­ing the of­fices and so­cial-me­dia ac­counts of elected of­fi­cials.

Like tea party pro­test­ers fol­low­ing the pas­sage of the health-care law in

2009, lib­eral ac­tivists say they want to ques­tion mem­bers of Congress face to face about their po­si­tions and their votes on Trump’s Cabi­net nom­i­nees. Some have or­ga­nized lo­cal groups un­der the moniker “In­di­vis­i­ble,” a name taken from a guide pre­pared by for­mer Hill staffers that of­fers tips about how to or­ga­nize against Trump.

Com­stock, the only Repub­li­can rep­re­sent­ing North­ern Vir­ginia in Congress and a pos­si­ble can­di­date for Se­nate next year, has pre­ferred to keep the ac­tivists at arm’s length.

She held a “tele­phone town hall” Wed­nes­day night that lasted about an hour and 15 min­utes. Although she said dur­ing the call that more than 6,000 con­stituents were lis­ten­ing in, only about a dozen were able to speak to the con­gress­woman.

Af­ter the call, some par­tic­i­pants ex­pressed frus­tra­tion about the in­abil­ity of callers to fol­low up on what they con­sid­ered vague and repet­i­tive an­swers.

“Peo­ple are fu­ri­ous,” said Kris­ten Swan­son, an artist and teacher from Loudoun County and one of the or­ga­niz­ers be­hind the ef­fort to have Com­stock ap­pear in per­son at a town hall. “We’re not try­ing to am­bush her; we just want to talk to her.”

Ini­tially, Swan­son said, Com- stock’s of­fice did not re­spond to her calls and emails invit­ing her to a town hall next week.

Af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post in­quired about it Fri­day, Com­stock’s of­fice told Swan­son the con­gress­woman could not at­tend due to a sched­ul­ing con­flict.

Through a spokesman, Com­stock said she and her staff pre­fer to meet with small groups of con­stituents.

“We have found that this per­sonal set­ting has been con­ducive to civil and re­spect­ful dis­cus­sions,” spokesman Jeff Marschner said in a state­ment.

Wed­nes­day’s tele­phone town hall was open to con­stituents who reg­is­tered in ad­vance dur­ing a 20-hour win­dow.

“We talk to peo­ple ev­ery week,” Com­stock said dur­ing the call. “We’re out in there in the com­mu­nity talk­ing to peo­ple in their busi­nesses, in their schools, in their ro­tary clubs and cham­bers and ev­ery­where else. I know when I go to church, we hear from peo­ple.”

Most callers asked about her party’s plan to re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act and about Trump’s ban on refugees, which has been stayed by the courts. Com­stock told callers that the ban was un­con­sti­tu­tional and bad pol­icy.

“One of these things we need to re­ally strive in these chal­leng­ing times, and I know it’s not of­ten what you see on TV, but we need to have this kind of civ­i­lized dis­course, and I ap­pre­ci­ate the pas­sion that ev­ery­one brings to these is­sues,” she said by tele­phone.

Mem­bers of the “In­di­vis­i­ble” group from Com­stock’s dis­trict said they want to avoid the kind of an­gry con­fronta­tions that played out a few days ago at town halls hosted by Reps. Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) and Diane Black (R-Tenn.).

“We would like very much for a meet­ing to hap­pen and for the con­gress­woman to be there,” said Jan Hyland of Loudoun County. “We want to make it as easy as pos­si­ble for her to at­tend.”

Af­ter the elec­tion, Swan­son down­loaded the 26-page “In­di­vis­i­ble” guide and started a Face­book group that bal­looned to more than 1,300 mem­bers and spurred var­i­ous splin­ter groups.

“We truly, truly be­lieve that we de­serve a face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion,” Swan­son said. “We de­serve to ask ques­tions to our rep­re­sen­ta­tive and have her an­swer them in per­son. It’s just very ba­sic. That’s her job, and our coun­try is in cri­sis.”

Sim­i­lar groups in the sub­ur­ban Rich­mond dis­trict rep­re­sented by Rep. Dave Brat (R) are press­ing him to hold an in-per­son town hall af­ter he was cap­tured on video com­plain­ing about the on­slaught of re­quests he’s got­ten from con­stituents.

Fol­low­ing pub­lic­ity about his com­ments, he an­swered ques­tions re­motely through a “Face­book town hall” and com­mit­ted to hold an in-per­son event in his dis­trict next week. Brat said he was amazed at the hub­bub be­cause he con­sid­ers him­self one of most ac­ces­si­ble mem­bers of Congress.

“I ex­plain ev­ery vote on Face­book,” he said in an in­ter­view. “I went to sem­i­nary, would never hurt a fly. Never said a neg­a­tive word about any­body, never a neg­a­tive ad.”

Dur­ing his first term, Brat said, he vis­ited all 10 coun­ties in his dis­trict ev­ery month. Asked to pro­vide doc­u­men­ta­tion of the meet­ings, his of­fice de­clined, say­ing many events were chron­i­cled in news sto­ries and on so­cial me­dia.

Rep. Scott W. Tay­lor (R), who was elected in Novem­ber, has sched­uled three in-per­son town halls in his Vir­ginia Beach dis­trict later this month.

“It’s im­por­tant for me to stay con­nected to my con­stituents and hear their opin­ions and an­swer their ques­tions,” Tay­lor said in an in­ter­view. “I know [other law­mak­ers] have had some [se­cu­rity] prob­lems. I don’t care. I’m look­ing for­ward to it and to hear­ing their con­cerns.”

In ad­di­tion to Brat and Tay­lor, Vir­ginia Demo­cratic Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, A. Don­ald McEachin, Don Beyer and Ger­ald E. Con­nolly are plan­ning in-per­son town halls.

Repub­li­can Reps. Rob Wittman and Thomas Gar­rett said they will hold tele­phone or on­line fo­rums. Reps. Bob Good­latte (R) and H. Morgan Grif­fith (R) did not re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment on their plans.

“We de­serve to ask ques­tions . . . and have her an­swer them in per­son. It’s just very ba­sic.” Kris­ten Swan­son, a Loudoun County res­i­dent or­ga­niz­ing a Com­stock town hall

JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Rep. Barbara Com­stock (R-Va.) de­bates a chal­lenger in her 2016 race. Some con­stituents frus­trated with her “tele­phone town halls” and small-group meet­ings are de­mand­ing a live, open fo­rum.

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