In a gymnasium at Cedar Park Middle School in Covington on April 12, local activists and community members held a seat for U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, who chose not to attend the town hall.
Rep. Reichert, like many Republicans since Donald Trump’s inauguration, has refused to attend town halls in his district. Faced with constituents frustrated over President Trump’s policies, Reichert and his Republican colleagues have opted instead to avoid organized gatherings and to denounce protesters in a strategy similar to the one employed by congressional Democrats in the few months after the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
The 2010 strategy preceded a devastating loss in the 2010 midterm elections for Democrats, who after months of avoiding town halls and attacking the motivations of protesters lost 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and their majority.
Many of the attendees who had gathered in the gymnasium of Cedar Parks High School on April 12 hope Republicans see a similar result.
The event, which was organized by the 47th District Democrats and the grass-roots protest group Indivisible, drew roughly 300 residents. Speakers were a mixture of state, county and city representatives. Most were Democrats. Topics ranged from the future of the Democratic Party, calls for more civic engagement and denunciations of Trump’s recent executive orders and rhetoric.
In the corner of the room a cardboard cutout of Reichert stood between two empty chairs, which organizers claimed was a symbolic protest over the representative’s continued absence from town hall events. Attendees largely ignored the cutout in lieu of criticizing the missing representative openly and loudly, usually with jeers, whenever he was mentioned.
For many of the attendees, something in recent history has awakened their civic spirit.
For Brandon Dotson, it was last year’s caucus that inspired him to organize the event. Dotson, 24, works at a local warehouse.
“I got there and didn’t see a lot of young people, so I got involved,” Dotson said. “I’m bisexual and live with mental illness. If I didn’t speak up then I would remain invisible.”
Dotson says he put it together because he wanted to give other people a forum to ask questions and air their concerns. Dotson says residents don’t have a space to ask questions and express concerns about federal issues, given their “absentee congressman.”
But among the gathered, not all had roots in political parties or activism.
Carmen Olvera came to Cedar Park with her sister Rebecca Olvera. This was the first town hall they had attended, either together or alone. When they spoke, they often alternated sentences. One says she’s worried, the other says she’s worried about the new administration. Both sisters agree that they came because they wanted to make a difference in whatever way they could. Both also wished Republicans such as Reichert would “show up and answer questions.”
Thomas Messey is not like the Olvera sisters. He’s been coming to town halls for quite some time. But he says he “didn’t even know about this one in advance.” Messey’s friend Joe Thomson invited him. Thomson considers himself an independent, and Messey calls himself a Republican.
Their politics aren’t all that similar, says Messey, but they play in a bluegrass band together. Messey plays the fiddle and Thomson plays the banjo, so they’re friends.
Thomson says he doesn’t often come to town halls. But he says he came to this one because he wanted to see what they had to say.
For his part, Rep. Reichert is sticking to strategy.
Breanna Deusch, the D.C. spokesperson for Reichert, called the event a “fake town hall.” She was quick to point out in an email to Real Change that Reichert had met with an Indivisible group in Wenatchee in March and that he has some 50 meetings with constituents lined up over the next two weeks.
Though the 8th District has elected Republican representatives since its establishment after the 1980 Census, it has voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 2004. Activists such as Dotson see opportunity in these kinds of statistics.
Dotson says he’s already planning another event.