Com­stock is a no-show at town hall

Hun­dreds de­mand in-per­son fo­rums with re­gion’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives

The Washington Post Sunday - - COM­MUTER - BY JENNA PORT­NOY jenna.port­noy@wash­

A sin­gle silent mi­cro­phone awaited a con­gress­woman who never ma­te­ri­al­ized Fri­day night as dozens of her con­stituents vented their frus­tra­tion at her ab­sence, an­a­lyzed her vot­ing record and dis­sected her cam­paign prom­ises.

Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock (R-Va.) was 15 miles away, at­tend­ing the an­nual Catholic Char­i­ties Ball.

Ac­tivists from the In­di­vis­i­ble VA District 10 Face­book group hosted the “cit­i­zen’s town hall” at the Ster­ling Com­mu­nity Cen­ter and set up the mic in case she de­cided to join them.

“That woman would show up to an open­ing of an en­ve­lope, so the fact that she would not show up tonight is in­cred­i­bly in­sult­ing to me and to all of us,” said Kona Gal­lagher, 36, from Ash­burn.

A crowd of about 150 ap­plauded but left the pithy signs and heated rhetoric at home.

The se­date fo­rum un­folded in the bat­tle­ground county of Loudoun as vot­ers else­where in Vir­ginia — and across the coun­try — planned sim­i­lar events to seek an­swers from their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives about the agenda of the GOP-con­trolled Congress and Pres­i­dent Trump.

Some mem­bers, like Com­stock, have es­chewed the pub­lic fo­rums out of fear that an­gry res­i­dents will shout them down and cre­ate a cir­cus­like at­mos­phere, as hap­pened Tues­day to Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) in South­side Vir­ginia.

In Rep. Bob Good­latte’s district in south­west Vir­ginia, res­i­dents ad­dressed their ques­tions to a card­board cutout of the Repub­li­can at a “Peo­ple’s Town Hall” on Wed­nes­day night out­side Roanoke.

Good­latte, who is chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and trav­eled to In­dia this past week with House col­leagues, prefers to hold town halls via tele­phone — where thou­sands can lis­ten in but only a hand­ful get to ask ques­tions.

After re­peated calls and emails from con­stituents, Rep. Thomas Gar­rett, a fresh­man who rep­re­sents cen­tral Vir­ginia, an­nounced Fri­day that he will hold a town hall on March 13. In­di­vis­i­ble Char­lottesville and like-minded groups are plan­ning to hold one of their own Gar­rett town halls Sun­day. Two high school stu­dents will serve as vol­un­teer mod­er­a­tors.

In Mary­land, a chair with a sign that read “re­served for [Rep.] Andy Har­ris,” a Repub­li­can, sat empty Tues­day evening at a meet­ing about the pos­si­ble ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act. Two days later, Har­ris an­nounced de­tails for a March 31 “brick-and-mor­tar town hall” at a mid­dle school.

Back in Ster­ling, the crowd es­chewed the card­board dop­pel­gänger and re­cruited au­thor and cul­ture critic Todd Kli­man to serve as mod­er­a­tor.

Kli­man hosted a five-event con­ver­sa­tion se­ries in Wash­ing­ton called “WTF Now?!” after the elec­tion that fea­tured econ­o­mists, pol­icy ex­perts, his­to­ri­ans and oth­ers dis­cussing the Trump pres­i­dency.

At times, the event on Com­stock’s turf seemed more like a pol­icy sem­i­nar than a protest.

“Rus­sia was in­volved in the 2016 elec­tion,” said Sue Reilly, a 67-year-old Ash­burn res­i­dent. “How are you go­ing to make sure that the is­sue is in­ves­ti­gated in­de­pen­dently?”

A vol­un­teer re­searcher and con­stituent, Guy Po­tucek, read from a slide pro­jected on the cin­der block wall that listed Com­stock’s ear­lier state­ments about the sub­ject, as well as her tweets say­ing that she sup­ports in­ves­ti­ga­tions by the House and Se­nate In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees.

Asked if that an­swered her ques­tion, Reilly, silently raised a small sign that read “Boo.”

Matthew Zel­man, a 35-yearold Cen­tre­ville res­i­dent, teared up as he talked about his 5-yearold son’s friend, a so-called an­chor baby who was born in the United States to par­ents who are un­doc­u­mented.

“They are about as Amer­i­can as any­body I ever met in my life,” he said. He would ask Com­stock, “Do you con­sider those peo­ple to be crim­i­nals? They’ve never had a speed­ing ticket in their lives.”

Thomas M. Davis III, a mod­er­ate Repub­li­can and for­mer con­gress­man from North­ern Vir­ginia, said he un­der­stands why mem­bers in re­li­ably red dis­tricts would avoid con­tentious con­fronta­tions with vot­ers.

But, he said, swing dis­tricts like Com­stock’s are dif­fer­ent.

“You need to talk to ev­ery­one,” said Davis, who also rep­re­sented a swing district. “For me it was sur­vival.”

Com­stock has held tele­phone town halls, which both­ers some ac­tivists who say the for­mat is overly con­trolled. That frus­tra­tion was clear among some of the par­tic­i­pants Tues­day night, when Com­stock held her sec­ond call in re­cent weeks.

A caller told Com­stock she spent “a lot of time talk­ing in cir­cles and not an­swer­ing the ques­tion.”

“Peo­ple are rea­son­able,” the caller said, ac­cord­ing to a record­ing. “I don’t think that you would be at­tacked by dis­re­spect­ful peo­ple or pro­test­ers. I think peo­ple re­ally just want an open back-and­forth di­a­logue with peo­ple face to face.”

Com­stock said she can­not ef­fec­tively ad­dress vot­ers’ con­cerns at a large town hall, and es­pe­cially not one fea­tur­ing Kli­man, whom she re­ferred to as “a food critic from Mary­land.”

She would rather have small meet­ings for “back-and-forth di­a­logue,” she said, and ran through a gant­let of 30 of them Fri­day at her Capi­tol Hill of­fice.

“It was very in­for­ma­tive to hear spe­cific in­di­vid­u­als’ per­sonal sto­ries, con­cerns and health care sit­u­a­tions and it re­in­forced my con­vic­tion that we need to do health care re­form in a me­thod­i­cal way that re­spects these life and death sit­u­a­tions,” she said in a state­ment.

Ac­tivists con­tinue to flood Com­stock’s of­fice with phone calls and meet­ing re­quests. Images of her photo su­per­im­posed on milk car­tons pro­lif­er­ate on­line, and a “Where’s Com­stock” web­site at­tempts to track her move­ments.

They urge her to re­lease her pub­lic sched­ule in ad­vance, as many elected of­fi­cials do as a mat­ter of pol­icy; Com­stock has de­clined. In­stead, her staff uses so­cial me­dia to share de­tails about her events after they hap­pen.

In Ster­ling, Mike Turner, a re­tired Air Force colonel who ran for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for the seat Com­stock now holds in 2008, raised a pocket-size copy of the Con­sti­tu­tion — sim­i­lar to the ac­tions of Khizr Khan, the fa­ther of an Army cap­tain killed in Iraq, at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion last year.

Turner, 65, of Ash­burn, said he “never imag­ined that the chief en­emy to this doc­u­ment would be the pres­i­dent of the United States.” The au­di­ence stood and clapped.

“When the im­peach­ment comes — and it’s com­ing . . . Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Com­stock, will you vote with your con­stituents, for the peo­ple who pay your salary, or not?” he said.

Be­fore the fo­rum, Vir­ginia GOP Chair­man John Whit­beck, who is a for­mer head of the party com­mit­tee in Com­stock’s district, called such an­tics “faux out­rage.”

“Just be­cause she won’t have a town hall with a bunch of lib­er­als who de­spise her doesn’t mean she’s cut off from her con­stituents,” he said.

The proof is in the elec­tion re­sults, he said.

De­spite pro­jec­tions from in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts that her race would be a nail-biter, Com­stock won re­elec­tion to a sec­ond term in Novem­ber by six per­cent­age points. Trump lost the district by 10.

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