Politics & Government

Looking to talk to a NC senator or congressman? It’ll be tough.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., right, walk from a policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 8, 2015.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., right, walk from a policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 8, 2015. AP

Finally, North Carolina lawmakers can come home for a long week and talk to all those activists who have been protesting and bombarding them with phone calls and emails.

Trouble is, a lot of the senators and congressmen who Friday began a 10-day recess won’t be easy to find.

I’m probably not going to change his mind but I do want him to listen. So that he can take the temperature of the room.

Heather Lowe from Durham, N.C.

U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, as well as Chapel Hill Democrat U.S. Rep. David Price, will be out-of-state traveling on official congressional business.

The office of U.S. Rep. George Holding, Republican from Raleigh, did not respond to multiple requests from McClatchy for information. Price’s office noted he held a public forum earlier this month and has more coming up. Tillis has been holding online forums with constituents.

One member from the Triangle, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, Democrat from Wilson, has announced a large public forum where he’ll take questions.

Tricia Loteman, from Raleigh, was frustrated this week to find out she won’t be able to meet with a small group of local people with Holding. Instead, they’ll meet with a senior member of Holding’s district office staff.

Holding once hosted regular Tuesday sessions with constituents in North Carolina but Loteman was told recently by his district office those haven’t resumed due to his staff still settling in a new space with new hours.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faced similar criticisms for a lack of town halls during the Affordable Care Act debates of 2009 and 2013.

Loteman said she wants to talk with Holding about Republicans’ plans for a new health care policy to replace the Affordable Care Act. Her husband, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has had difficulty in the past getting health insurance coverage before they joined an employer-sponsored plan, due to pre-existing health issues.

“He’s uninsurable if we go back to the way things were,” she said.

Others interviewed by McClatchy this week in North Carolina said they’re also concerned by the imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act but many have focused their complaints to lawmakers on President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks and his executive orders.

The shortage of town halls during Congress’ President’s Day break, which began Friday and ends February 27, comes as some politicians have faced rowdy crowds at public meetings and had their district offices, including a few in Charlotte and Raleigh, besieged with protests. Since Election Day, just five Republican senators and 10 Democratic senators from other states have held in-person public events at home, according to data from LegiStorm.com, which tracks town halls.

It has become apparent that some individuals, who are not really interested in meaningful dialogue, attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

In response to constituents who asked Tillis for a town hall event this month, the senator cited in a letter the logistical difficulty in scheduling such events weeks in advance, given the Senate’s schedule. He said facility restrictions on crowd size would limit accessibility.

Tillis’ letter also stated plainly the reality of serving in office during a polarized time in American politics:

“It has become apparent that some individuals, who are not really interested in meaningful dialogue, attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles. This is particularly unfortunate because it leads to a scenario in which only the loudest voices in the room can be heard and very little meaningful discussion can actually occur,” the letter states.

Instead of town halls, Tillis holds regular private meetings with constituents, including Democrats and Independents, in his offices in Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, said Daniel Keylin, a spokesperson. Tillis also hosts telephone-based question-and-answer group sessions and Facebook Live chats.

That strategy doesn’t satisfy a lot of activists.

“For years, (town halls) have been used as a way to reach out to constituents,” said Susan Dayton, a Democrat who lives on Ocracoke Island in North Carolins’s Outer Banks. “Now, they don’t want to be put on the spot in public. For me, that says they’re not doing their job.”

Dayton contacted Tillis’ office in recent weeks. She is particularly upset, she said, by the content and quick pace of Trump’s executive orders during his first month in office, which will bring sweeping policy changes affecting refugees and environmental regulations.

Durham resident Heather Lowe, a Democrat, who says she votes as an Independent, accepts Tillis and Burr are traveling for work purposes but has been calling both offices daily since Trump took action to freeze refugee admissions.

“I understand I’m probably not going to change his mind but I do want him to listen,” Lowe said. “So that he can take the temperature of the room.”

This is not the first time North Carolina politicians have been criticized for not holding regular open forums.

In 2009 and 2013, former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., was the subject of protests by residents opposed to the Affordable Care Act. At least one large “mock town hall” was held in Wilmington when Hagan didn’t schedule a public meeting during the August 2009 Senate recess. During that same month, Burr and former U.S. Reps. Larry Kissell, a Democrat, and Sue Myrick, a Republican, hosted local town halls.

At that time, fury from the grassroots Tea Party movement and conservatives’ anger with President Barack Obama’s actions meant uncomfortable forums for both Republicans and Democratic lawmakers. At the time, Hagan instead opted to met with small, private groups of constituents.

Tillis, who beat Hagan in her 2014 re-election bid, will be the target of a Charlotte “mock town hall,” organized by members of Indivisible Charlotte, a group associated with a national Democratic-leaning organization.

William Douglas contributed to this article.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews

Local N.C. politicians’ whereabouts during recess

U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, and U.S. Rep. David Price, out of state traveling on congressional business trips.

U.S. Reps. Ted Budd, of the 13th Congressional District, Walter Jones, of the 3rd Congressional District, and Mark Walker, of the 6th Congressional District, will have constituent availability.

U.S. Rep. George Holding, of the 2nd Congressional District, did not comment.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, of the 1st Congressional District, will hold a community forum on Feb. 25 at 1 p.m. at Hillside High School Auditorium in Durham.

  Comments