- By Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Frustrated by U.S. Rep. John Carter’s failure to schedule a town hall meeting with his constituents during next week’s President’s Day “district work period,” Felicia Miyakawa of Round Rock took matters into her own hands, scheduling a town hall meeting for Carter for next Wednesday, whether he shows up or not.
“I came up with it on Sunday, I quickly put together a working group; I had a venue booked by Monday,” said Miyakawa. And, in short order, a thanks but no thanks, from the 75-year-old Carter, now serving in his eighth term in Congress.
“Constituent services is a top priority of the congressman,” said Corry Schiermeyer, Carter’s spokeswoman. “The congressman appreciates the invitation, but he is unable to attend.”
The Republican’s failure to attend a town hall meeting during next week’s break in the congressional calendar places him in plenty of company, including all his fellow Central Texas representatives.
All but one of the six congressmen who represent slices of Austin are Republicans. They are well aware that even in their heavily GOP districts, at this moment in history, the people most likely to show up at a town hall meeting are those who want express their agitation with President Donald Trump.
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was met Feb. 9 with loud boos at a town hall meeting in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, that drew well more than the auditorium’s capacity of 1,000 people.
The previous Saturday, U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., required a police escort to get past protesters outside the Tower Theater in Roseville, Calif., where more than 500 people booed and interrupted McClintock at a town hall meeting.
It is all an echo of the reception Democratic members of Congress — including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin — received from tea party activists in the first summer of the Obama administration in 2009.
Much of the current clamor for town hall meetings comes from a surge of folks who have affiliated with Indivisible, a nascent national network of 6,900 chapters. Activists are self-consciously dedicated to using tea party tactics to undermine Trump.
“I’m a mom who has suddenly become a community organizer,” Miyakawa said. “I had no experience doing this before, but I am doing this. I am the founder of Wilco Indivisible – and I’m not getting paid.”
Miyakawa got the idea for an empty-chair town hall meeting from what some other Indivisible groups around the country were doing.
(The simpatico Town Hall Project has been listing and mapping congressional town hall events across the country.)
An Indivisible group in U.S. Rep. Roger Williams’ district — which stretches from Austin to near Fort Worth — frustrated that they can’t find any public meetings on his schedule during the break, has invited Williams to a town hall meeting they will hold, with or without him, at Flores Mexican Restaurant in Dripping Springs at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, timed to a 6:30 p.m. Republican Party event he is attending at a nearby church. Williams hasn’t responded to the town hall invitation.
Many members of Congress prefer the safety of tele-town hall meetings, which offer interaction with constituents but in a controlled setting — essentially large-scale conference calls in which hundreds or thousands of people can listen in and queue up to ask a question — with no booing, no signs with clever slogans, no bad headlines, no viral videos.
Miyakawa said Carter’s staff has told her and others that he hasn’t done live town hall meetings since the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., at a public meeting with constituents in 2011.
“I wouldn’t say that is ‘the’ reason, but it would be correct to say it contributes to the many reasons,” Schiermeyer said. “Mostly town halls are not nearly as effective, and you can’t reach nearly as many people as a tele-town hall.”
“We are working out details for an upcoming tele-town hall,” said Lizzie Litzow, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, still does in-person town hall meetings, but spokesman Andre Castro said, “We do not have any town hall events scheduled for next week. We traditionally hold town hall events in the spring, summer and fall. We currently expect to hold town hall events during our April district work period.”
But, Castro said, Flores will be meeting with constituents throughout his district, including in Austin on Wednesday.
Doggett held an Affordable Care Act town hall event on Jan. 28, and he will hold another on March 5.
Indivisible members have been showing up at least once a week at the Austin offices of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and the local members of Congress, calling for town hall meetings.
Jason Sugg, a South Austin psychotherapist active in the Austin Indivisible chapter for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith’s district, said, “We are in the process of organizing some public town halls that we will invite him to, since he hasn’t organized them himself.”
“Congressman Smith held numerous public forums last year, both by phone and in person,” said his spokeswoman, Jennifer Pett. “He will be meeting with dozens of constituents next week across the district.”
“Listen to us”
The Carter-less town hall meeting will take place 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Champion Park, 3830 Brushy Creek Road in Cedar Park.
The cost, paid for with donations, was $110 for half a day for both pavilions at the park, with a fixed seating capacity of 144. But, with already more than 200 RSVPs, open parkland all around, she is recommending folks carpool, bring their families, and make a picnic out of it.
Miyakawa believes that if Carter showed up, he would find a civil and respectful audience.
“It might not be the friendliest crowd he would ever encounter, but we are his constituents,” she said.
Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by more than a dozen percentage points in Carter’s district, which encompasses Williamson and Bell counties. But in many precincts closest to Travis County — the portion of Northwest Austin that extends into Williamson County, Round Rock and Cedar Park — Clinton defeated Trump.
“However he won in 2016, he needs to acknowledge that a good chunk of his district lives on the left, and we need him to listen to us as much as he listens to those who live on the right,” said Miyakawa, who said organizers will videotape Wednesday’s town hall meeting and send it to Carter.