Missouri activists were fed up. Sen. Roy Blunt wasn’t holding town halls.
So they tracked down the Republican senator at a fundraiser 700 miles away, in Tennessee.
April White, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Maryville, Tennessee, drove a half hour to the event in Knoxville with about 60 postcards from Blunt’s constituents back home. She approached Blunt as he walked into the ballroom where he’d deliver the fundraiser’s keynote speech and pulled the cards from her purse.
“We were talking to some of our friends in Kansas City, and they were having trouble getting ahold of you,” White said, pressing the postcards into Blunt’s hands.
Blunt tried to decline the postcards but eventually took them. A spokeswoman from his office said he had shared them with staff when he returned to his office.
“Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the postcards did not have any return address information, so Sen. Blunt was unable to respond to them individually, which he would have appreciated the opportunity to do,” Katie Boyd said. “Those that did contain addresses either have or will be receiving a response.”
We wanted to get the message across: There’s nowhere you can hide. If you won’t come out and talk to your constituents, your days of going to this stuff unaccosted are over.
For Blunt and other members of Congress, this kind of long-distance confrontation is becoming the new normal.
Activists with Indivisible, an organization started by congressional staffers and usually identified with Democratic loyalists, as well as other grass-roots organizations are coordinating with each other to hunt down lawmakers at fundraisers and other events hundreds — or even thousands — of miles from their home states.
“We wanted to get the message across: There’s nowhere you can hide,” White said. “If you won’t come out and talk to your constituents, your days of going to this stuff unaccosted are over.”
A few weeks after White surprised Blunt in Tennessee, activists in Sarasota, Florida, paddled out in kayaks to disrupt a waterfront fundraiser for Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman from California. They held up signs, blew whistles and honked horns during the May 7 event as fundraiser attendees looked on, drinks in hand.
“We were a few feet away from (Issa) yelling, ‘You couldn’t raise money in California, could ya? You’re awfully far away from home!’ ” recalled one of the kayakers, Jayne Lemli, a 61-year-old office manager with Action Together Suncoast, an Indivisible group in southwest Florida.
Lemli and other Florida activists had been alerted to the fundraiser by members of an Indivisible group in Issa’s district in San Diego, who contacted them by social media.
The congressman has met with these groups a number of times and plans another town hall in the next recess period.
Calvin Moore, spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
The Californians suggested wording for signs and asked their Florida counterparts to find out whether Issa would commit on camera to holding a town hall soon. He did.
“The congressman has met with these groups a number of times and plans another town hall in the next recess period,” said Issa’s spokesman, Calvin Moore. He said details would be announced in the coming days.
“They have to know these are not isolated, paid protesters,” said Dianne K. Perry, a retired counselor from Bradenton, Florida, who organizes Action Together Suncoast. “We are nationwide, we communicate with each other, and they have to be accountable to us. They don’t work for the president. They work for us.”
Politicians these days must be on guard for encounters with camera-wielding activists anywhere, even far from their own states or outside Capitol Hill, said Brian Walsh, a former Republican strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a partner at the bipartisan public affairs firm Rokk Solutions in Washington, D.C.
“What we’re experiencing in American politics is the never-ending campaign,” Walsh said. “Even for lawmakers who are not in cycle, this is what they’re going to have to adjust to with the rise of social media and cellphone cameras.”
His advice to members of Congress? “I would smile, be respectful, acknowledge they have the right to make their views known, and if they want to have a productive, meaningful conversation, urge them to make an appointment back in someone’s office the way normal people conduct business,” he said.
“No one wants pictures of you running away,” Walsh added, “even if they’re not your constituents, and they’re yelling at you.”
He warned there’s a risk that activists’ tactics could backfire if they’re seen as too aggressive or rude.
Ultimately the groups have to ask themselves down the road: What’s the goal? . . . There’s the possibility of overreach and you have to be careful of that.
Brian Walsh, public affairs firm Rokk Solutions
Members of Indivisible Kansas City say they tried and failed to have productive policy discussions with Blunt, who has not held a town hall since his re-election last November.
White got involved when Indivisible Kansas City organizer Hillary Shields contacted her and other east Tennessee activists after getting a Google alert that Blunt would appear at the fundraiser in Knoxville.
Shields searched for Indivisible groups in Tennessee on Twitter and Facebook and sent a message asking whether anyone would be willing to help.
“They were all over it,” Shields said. She sent them pictures of Indivisible Kansas City members holding up signs imploring Blunt to hold a town hall, and mailed a bundle of 50 to 60 letters that members of her group had written to Blunt.
When White tried to give Blunt the letters outside the ballroom in Tennessee, the senator tried to decline.
“He didn’t get angry but you can tell he was not super pumped about this development,” White said.
“I just kept pushing it,” she said, “so he took it.”
He talks with Missourians every day, a very important part of his job that he takes very seriously.
Katie Boyd, spokeswoman for Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
A few minutes later, White made a FaceTime call to Shields and other activists with Indivisible Kansas City, 50 of whom were gathered at a happy hour at Bier Station in Kansas City.
“We did it! We put your letters in Sen. Blunt’s hands,” White told them.
“Our whole room just broke into cheers when they told us they’d actually met with him and delivered our letters,” Shields said. “He had to, at least for a minute, listen to his constituents.”
Boyd, Blunt’s spokeswoman, said the senator regularly made himself available to constituents and had held more than 2,000 events in Missouri over the last six years.
“He talks with Missourians every day, a very important part of his job that he takes very seriously,” she said.
No word on whether Blunt will be holding a town hall anytime soon, though.
“With regard to future events, as usual, we will announce them in the days prior,” Boyd said.