Chapel Hill News

Our politicians are hiding from us – NC Insider

Paul T. O’Connor
Paul T. O’Connor

Anyone who’s ever pulled anchor and abandoned the house, office or locker room when someone is on a rant can certainly sympathize with the Republican lawmakers who dodged public meetings during the congressional recess.

No one enjoys dealing with some stranger who is foaming at the mouth.

But rather than being surprised that so many lawmakers avoided the public last week, I’m stunned that any at all, of either party, conducted town hall meetings, especially because politicians of late have shown little interest in being bothered by the great unwashed.

That’s today’s story: Not that anti-Trump fever is provoking a Tea Party-like response from the Left, but that our politicians are increasingly hiding from us.

When I started reporting in the mid-1970s, candidates for offices as high as U.S. senator and governor, and most candidates for lesser offices, regularly appeared in public. There were rallies downtown, or a candidate walked through a shopping mall shaking hands. There were numerous candidate forums sponsored by various groups but open to the public.

If you had a gripe or a concern, you could walk up to the guy and unload. Often an aide took notes.

Not any more. Politicians don’t want to hear it.

Security has long had the U.S. Congress sealed off to the public, but that was never the way at the Legislative Building in Raleigh. Unfortunately, it’s changing.

Legislators enter meeting rooms through “members-only” doors. They have their own dining room. Before sessions, visitors are shooed off the chamber floors earlier, so late-arriving legislators can avoid them. Each legislator has a secretary, and many now have staff, who serve as insulation from the ordinary Joe who just wants to have his say.

Today’s Honorables certainly don’t want to hear anything unpleasant. When Republicans started remaking state government and state law to their preference, they let the Moral Monday crowd know the First Amendment didn’t apply at 16 W. Jones St.

Former House Speaker Thom Tillis refused to meet with the demonstrators and had some arrested for occupying his office. It was good preparation, I guess, for his refusal to hold town halls as a U.S. senator. (He says now that he’s willing to meet folks in his office.)

Out on the campaign trail, there really isn’t a trail, not a public one, at least. Candidates travel the state but meet almost exclusively with pre-cleared, friendly, financial contribution-type groups. Those of us who are not members of an interest group are unlikely to hear a candidate’s speech and then get to ask a question afterwards.

Members of the press still have a bit better access, but that is tightening, too. Politicians used to think that “no comment” was the worst thing they could say. Now some won’t even say that. They just walk away.

Much is being said about the ill temper of those who appeared at the town hall meetings. The politicians, without evidence, charge that the protesters are paid agitators or, worse yet, liberals, as if that forfeits their right to speak. Anything to dismiss contrary opinions.

But here’s a different possibility. Maybe the Left this year is as angry as the Right was in 2010 because they’re sick and tired of being denied access to their supposedly elected representatives, unless they pay $500 to attend his campaign’s lovefest.

Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.

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