Why won’t U.S. Rep. Roger Williams face the voters in Austin?
I’m not talking about orchestrated visits with handpicked groups like the chamber of commerce — events the rest of us learn about after the fact. I’m talking about a public forum with his constituents; there are 210,000 of us registered to vote in District 25 in Travis County, the largest cohort of any county in his district.
I’m talking about unscripted town halls, where the 68-year old Republican car dealer who once played minor league baseball would surely field questions about his absolute fealty to President Trump. Or a debate with his Democratic opponent, Julie Oliver, whose views on universal health care and immigration reform might also raise some eyebrows. I’m a volunteer in Oliver’s campaign.
So, Oliver recently stood before an Indivisible Austin town hall gathering in Northwest Hills and took questions, including a few that seemed skeptical about the idea of expanding Medicare. “This was not a real partisan crowd,” said Russell Buyse, a tech executive whose political activism began, like many of those present, with Trump’s election.
Williams didn’t show. He never does. He was making the rounds on his home turf in North Texas – including a stop in Arlington, which isn’t even in his district. As for Travis County, where 42 percent of Congressional District 25 voters live, there’s no record of Williams appearing at a real town hall in years.
His Republican colleagues are also avoiding such appearances in unfriendly territory. Travis County fits that definition. It’s where Williams – and Trump – were outpolled by their Democratic opponents by margins of more than two-to-one in 2016.
But that’s not the whole story. Williams is a no-show for the same reason that he sits in Congress at all: a radical 2011 gerrymander that cracked Travis County into five congressional districts spanning an astonishing 27,000 square miles – one-tenth the size of the entire state. That’s how far the Legislature reached so it could nullify our votes with those from dozens of rural Republican counties.
That’s how we became the inconvenient constituents of District 25 — and Districts 10, 17 and 21 — who are routinely dismissed despite our growing numbers. And it’s why Williams is often seen glad-handing in friendly Cleburne — population 30,000 — where he has an office, but rarely in Austin — population 950,000 — where he also has an office.
“The lack of responsiveness, of accountability, is shocking,” Buyse said. “The best place to find him is on Twitter.”
Dismissing voters of a different political persuasion isn’t an option for challengers like Oliver, a 46-year old attorney and division controller for St. David’s HealthCare. She’s put 38,000 miles on her car campaigning up and down District 25, including more than 30 trips to meet voters in Johnson County, which went 73 percent for Trump.
When a woman who called Oliver to complain about a campaign text message told the candidate she would never vote for a “baby killer,” Oliver – a churchgoing mother of four – tried to explain that someone can be “pro-choice” as well as “pro-life.”
“I’ll talk to anybody – Republicans, Democrats, people who don’t vote. It doesn’t matter,” she says.
She believes Williams has a lot to answer for, like his support for cutting Medicare and Social Security funding and for ending protections for hundreds of thousands of Texans with pre-existing medical conditions. Her supporters pester him daily on social media to face them in a public venue. Williams doesn’t bite.
Today, there are 751,000 voters in Travis County — 147,000 more than in 2010, before the GOP conspired to deprive us of equal representation in Congress. We may be inconvenient, but so is accountability. No one who speaks for us in Washington should get a pass on showing up.
Not in this Congress. Not this year.
Bell is a retired journalist in Austin.