The constituents of Washington's District 8 have a lot to say to their U.S. Representative, Dave Reichert (R-Auburn), but when he returns from Washington for recess the week of February 20th, he isn't giving them a public forum in which to say it. No town hall. No mini-town hall (we'll get to that in a second). No speech from a balcony or from a fir tree or from Mt. Si's hallowed haystack.
Instead, and only after serious pressure, he's agreed to host a Facebook live event on February 23rd at 1:00 p.m. The digital conference will be moderated by KCTS anchor Enrique Cerna, who will select questions for Reichert from a pool submitted by participants.
Those participants won't be standing shoulder to shoulder in a public space, but rather sitting on one side of a digital wall that separates them from their own representative and from each other. They'll be atomized, isolated, staring at the daemon light of their computer screens instead of reveling in the fervor of civic action, exchanging stories, networking, and growing closer together as a community.
Michelle Straka, 48, is a resident of North Bend, WA. That makes her one of Reichert's constituents in the 8th District, which covers the eastern parts of King and Pierce Counties, as well as Chelan and Kittitas counties. She's a prop master forced into early retirement by a medical condition. She's also a member of the Snoqualmie Valley Indivisibles, a Facebook group with 266 members that formed last month as part of a nation-wide effort to promote congressional advocacy. Along with a few other members of the group, she's been working to set up an actual, in-person town hall with Reichert.
On January 20th, she called Reichert's office to express her concerns about the Republican plan to gut the Affordable Care Act. "I'm terrified because I clearly have a pre-existing condition," she said. "My husband will be a slave to his job if he has to worry about where his health insurance would come from if he ever had to leave."
Straka isn't the only person in District 8 who might be worried about the future of the ACA. Nearly 40 percent of Reichert's constituents in Chelan County rely on the state exchange—which, since there's been some confusion on this point in the past, I want to stress, is the ACA—for their health insurance. A quarter of the population, give or take, in each of the district's other counties—Kittitas and the eastern parts of King and Pierce—rely on the program as well.
Reichert's district director, Sue Foy, spoke at length with Straka and invited her to meet at Reichert's Issaquah office a few days later, on January 24th. Because they had similar concerns, Foy invited two others to that meeting: one person who also belonged to the Snoqualmie Indivisibles, and another from the Lake Tapps Resistance League.
Foy has not responded to an e-mail I sent on Monday asking for comment, nor did she respond to two follow-up calls.
But according to Straka, during their meeting she asked Foy if Reichert would host a town hall meeting during Congressional recess. She and her group wanted him to answer questions about his views on civil rights, healthcare, and the environment. Foy responded then, and later reiterated the point in an e-mail to Straka, saying that town halls "were not successful because they turned into screaming matches amongst some of the participants."
(Straka pushes back on the idea that there's going to be a lot of screaming and yelling at their town hall. "If there’s a hundred us in a room and we’re all asking for the same thing, there’s probably not going to be a lot of shouting going on," she said.)
In that same meeting, according to Straka, Foy also mentioned Reichert's response to the rise of the Tea Party back in 2009-10. When local Tea Partiers asked him to hold town halls, he offered them "mini town halls" as a compromise. When Straka and her crew asked for a mini town hall, Foy countered with the idea of a Facebook live meeting, which she said would be moderated by the Public Broadcasting Service.
Straka and the same small group returned to Reichert's office on January 31st for another round of discussions. This time, they secured a small, hour-long, in-person meeting with the Congressman, as well as a hammered-out plan for the Facebook live event. Straka says there was no mention of holding a mini town hall, though their request still stands.
Straka insists Reichert's staffers are "wonderful, kind, people" who have been great to work with during this process, and she describes Foy as a woman who is "hard-wired to be a civil servant."
That's nice. But why won't Reichert hold even a mini public meeting with his constituents, as requested, during the upcoming Congressional recess?
Nobody wants to talk to me about that—including Reichert. Neither he nor a staffer from his office responded to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Susan Hutchison, Chairman of the Washington State Republican Party (and person who minimized Donald Trump's act of rape-y braggadocio by saying he was allegedly a Democrat at the time), did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Seattle Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who recently partnered with Reichert to cosponsor the BRIDGE Act, a bill that would secure some protections for those who qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—she also wouldn't talk. Jayapal has been a loud advocate for changing Republican minds about the ACA, and she clearly believes that "holding the floor" (and having a floor to hold) is important as well.
"Democrats held the Senate floor through the night last night—and they're still speaking as I write this—all in the name of delaying a vote on Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education," Jayapal wrote, a tad breathlessly, in a press release regarding the Senate's recent filibuster of DeVos. "I can't stand on the Senate floor with my progressive brothers and sisters. But I want them to know I'm standing with them in solidarity."
But after two requests for comment regarding Reichert's decision not to hold a town hall for his constituents—people who clearly want some public floor space for talking to Reichert about the ACA—Jayapal still had not responded.
However! Reichert has been talking to other outlets about his disposition towards state work, and the reporting on what he's said reveals a particularly shy and defensive habit of mind for a person who's chosen a life of public service.
Following the Muslim ban, Congressman Reichert—unprovoked—complained to KING 5 about the number of calls his office had been receiving lately. His grievance is long, but it's worth reading the whole cowardly thing:
My staff took over 700 phone calls yesterday—a staff of four people—and our voicemail box is full. And I understand that the mission here is to disrupt our constituent services. Then letters to the editor are written to say that Congressman Reichert isn’t responsive to his constituents. My concern is they can say whatever they want about me—we’re not able to help the people who need help. Those people that aren’t getting their social security check. Those veterans that aren’t getting their VA care—their disability or their retirement money—those are people we need to help. Our seniors and our veterans. Other people who aren't getting the correct Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements. That’s our job, and we’re not able to do it because a certain segment of our society believes that their voice is more important than the voices of those people who are crying out for those to help them.
So the only time the government isn’t working is when he says it isn’t working, and the only constituents who are important to him are the ones he says are important. Don't call his line when all you want to do is express your concern about President Trump metaphorically burning down the Statue of Liberty, Mother of Exiles, by banning people from entering the United States based on their nationality. Don't call and ask if he's on his way to the airport to see if border patrol is detaining any of his constituents or their family members. The only people Reichert wants to hear from are seniors and veterans who've lost a check.
And don't physically show up to his office, either. You might scare him.
According to Politico, on Tuesday, House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers tapped former sheriff Reichert to lead a closed-door meeting concerning proper safety measures representatives should take to "protect themselves and their staffs from protesters storming town halls and offices in opposition to repealing Obamacare."
Reichert urges lawmakers to build a backdoor just in case they need to skedaddle. He instructs them to install video cameras, and to replace glass doors with "hard doors."
Reichert's last bit of advice is one of prevention, and it reveals a major motivation for all of his dodgy ways: “You’ve got to build a relationship so you don’t get to the level where they feel they need to threaten or antagonize you or try to get you upset and get a YouTube moment,” he said.
A YouTube moment. That's what all this is about.
Of course, lawmakers and their staffs deserve to work in a safe space. But this isn't about safety. It's not about Reichert wanting to effectively communicate with constituents so he can represent their needs, either. It's about not getting caught on video, standing in a room with a hundred people begging him not to take away their healthcare. It's hard to blame him for wanting to avoid that bit of bad press. I mean, nobody wants to look like a monster.