Babin, Weber invited to Southeast Texas town hall meetings

February 23, 2017

A local chapter of a national activist group launched by ousted Democrats has invited Southeast Texas’ two Republican U.S. Representatives to town halls this week, overtures they will likely ignore for fear of being “hijacked” by agitators.

Golden Triangle Indivisible, an activist group formed last month, called Brian Babin and Randy Weber “missing in action” during a week they are back in their districts.

The group, part of a national network launched in December by former Democratic congressional staffers in opposition to President Donald Trump, says that neither representative has scheduled public events with constituents. The group has invited both to the events but are expecting to “likely be speaking to an empty podium.”

Groups across the country have hosted similar events this week, including one that drew about 200 demonstrators to Ted Cruz’s office on Tuesday, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Nationwide, Republicans have seen backlash both in town halls and for refusing to hold them, in scenes reminiscent of 2010, when Tea Party voters and conservative activists, many opposed to the Affordable Care Act, packed town halls held by Democrats.

Protesters “from Maine to Montana” have held demonstrations decrying the lack of town halls, The Associated Press reported. In Utah, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz faced a hostile crowd of protesters at a town hall last week. In Tennessee, constituents argued about health care with Rep. Diane Black, the AP said, leading Republican leaders to issue “best practices” advice for handling protesters.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said that across Texas, Democratic and Republican members of Congress are holding fewer town halls, fearing being “hijacked” by activists.

“Today, a representative holding a town hall runs the risk of being swamped by anti-Trump activists using it as a vehicle,” he said, taking away from their opportunities to discuss their positions or hold a dialogue.

While town hall meetings during the Obama administration gave Republican congressmen a vehicle to amplify and mobilize their constituents’ opposition to his policies, the intense response to Trump’s policies and rhetoric make town halls more of a public relations liability for them, he said.

More than one-third of Texas’ congressional representatives are Republicans, so “by definition, more Republicans are not holding them than Democrats,” Jones said.

The town hall for Weber, whose district includes Jefferson County, will be held at the Elmo Willard Library in Beaumont at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Babin, who represents parts of nine counties, including Hardin and Orange, was invited to the event at Lumberton’s Pete Trest Community Center at 6:30 p.m Friday.

Elizabeth-Burton Jones, Weber’s Communications Director, said his offices “do not have town halls scheduled this week.”

“Like all district work periods, Congressman Weber will be engaging constituents during events throughout the district,” she said but did not provide more information about those events.

Babin held a telephone town hall last Thursday, for which constituents signed up online in advance to ask questions. His office could not be reached for comment.

Rice’s Jones said telephone town halls have become popular over the past decade, especially for representatives with far-flung districts, like Weber’s and Babin’s, which span several counties.

In a statement, Golden Triangle Indivisible said the representatives should not be choosing which constituents they engage with.

“Representatives Weber and Babin are in a ‘district work period,’ which means they need to be here working for all of us. Their offices made it clear that they will only be meeting with select constituents. We do not believe this is enough, so we will host a town hall with or without their presence,” the group said.

On the Facebook pages for the events, the group said they called, emailed and delivered invitations to the representatives’ district offices.

At the town halls, “we plan to read our questions, record the event on video, and encourage Representative Weber/Babin to respond to our concerns, now and in the future,” the group wrote on Facebook.

The group is encouraging attendees to focus on questions surrounding the Affordable Care Act, which Congressional Republicans have said they plan to repeal. Babin and Weber both supported a resolution last month instructing committees to work on legislation to dismantle the act.

Indivisible of Smith County, a chapter in Tyler, held a public demonstration when Rep. Louie Gohmert, who represents 12 counties in northeast Texas, did not schedule any town halls during the recess.

In a letter to the group released to the public, Gohmert defended his decision to hold telephone town halls instead of in-person events.

“Unfortunately, at this time there are groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety,” he said.

The response was echoed in a tweet from Trump Tuesday, which said “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!”

“When the threat of violence at town hall meetings recedes, we can go back to having the civil town hall meetings I’ve had in the past to supplement the masses reached in our telephone town halls,” Gohmert said.

He praised the utility of telephone town halls, saying they reach more voters than in-person events.

“In the same amount of time it takes to have a town hall meeting, which usually has between 30 and 100 attendees in east Texas, I can communicate with thousands of my constituent bosses through a telephone town hall meeting,” Gohmert wrote.

“Every member of Congress has their own style,” Rice’s Jones said. Although it might seem in sharp contrast to Republicans’ actions during the Obama administration, “I don’t know that this is a trend,” he said.

LTeitz@BeaumontEnterprise.com Twitter.com/LizTeitz