Americans are taking an active role in their democracy, and their representatives can’t handle it

“I’m not feeling heard. And I can tell you that a lot of people are not feeling heard.”

Constituents outside Dana Rohrabacher’s district office. CREDIT: Indivisible collective, Orange County
Constituents outside Dana Rohrabacher’s district office. CREDIT: Indivisible collective, Orange County

Every Tuesday since January 20th, a group of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) constituents have gone to his local office in Huntington Beach, California, to try to get the answer to one key question: When can they talk to their representative?

When they showed up on January 31st, however, they were met with a locked door. One person was able to talk to staff through the intercom, but then the staff stopped answering. Eventually, the police came out from inside the locked office — where they appeared to have been waiting for the constituents to show up.

“There’s a lot going on in our country right now and we want to be represented, and we feel like that’s not happening,” Mike Lisenbery, one of Rohrabacher’s constituents, told ThinkProgress.

A request to Rohrabacher’s office for comment has not been returned.

Rohrabacher was an early supporter of President Donald Trump, and has come out in support of all of Trump’s policies. The majority of people in Rohrabacher’s district voted for Hillary Clinton.

Even though Rohrabacher’s constituents may disagree with him on many topics, they still want their voices to be heard.

“It’s still our tax dollars that are paying for his office, that are paying for his salary, that are paying for his staff,” said Lisenbery. “It’s okay for him not to agree with us, but he needs to hear us out.”

Lisenbery is an organizer in a grassroots group organizing around the Indivisible Guide, one of many such groups around the country. The Guide is a how-to manual for effective civic engagement put together by former congressional staffers following Trump’s election.

“It’s made it so people know what their power is, and know what their civic responsibility is — and that their civic responsibility extends beyond election season,” Aaron McCall, another member of the Orange County Indivisible group, told ThinkProgress. “It’s the responsibility of Americans to stand up and demand that their members of congress represent them.”

And after President Trump’s election and inauguration, many Americans all over the country are doing just that for the first time. The Senate received an average of 1.5 million calls per day last week, according to a spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Representative Brian Schatz tweeted last Thursday that the call volume was the heaviest in congressional history.

The volume of calls has made it difficult for some constituents to get through. Bearing a far heavier burden than it ever has, the Senate voicemail system has been malfunctioning, according to a customer service bulletin issued to Senate staff on January 30th. Social media is rife with frustrated reports of busy phone lines and full voicemail boxes.

The connection problems, however, extend far beyond telecommunications. Many Republicans are meeting the groundswell of constituents not with open ears, but with closed doors.

That’s what happened at Rohrabacher’s office last Tuesday, when Lisenbery, McCall, and 60 of Rohrabacher’s other constituents went to talk to his staff about Rohrabacher’s position on President Trump’s Muslim ban, and to drop off petitions for their representative to come back to the district and hold a town hall.

“We were just iced out by them,” Lisenbery told ThinkProgress. “We weren’t going there with the intention to disrupt anything. It was a lot of people that wanted to go and speak to their congressperson.”

One by one, people left voicemails on the intercom outside, asking when Rohrabacher would be coming back to the district to hold a town hall, so they could make their concerns heard. They also slid documentation under the door: a petition including their names and addresses, proving they were constituents — which the staff had requested the week before — and letters from church groups and senior communities.

“People left messages on the phone until it was full,” said McCall.

When one person banged on the door, the police came out from inside the locked office, where they had apparently been waiting even before the group arrived.

“They didn’t call because we were being disruptive, they were already there,” said Kari Kopnick, another constituent and member of the Orange County Indivisible collective. “They say that they called the police because we were blocking the entrance — that’s not true.”

Then the next day, a report came out in the local paper, The OC Register. Rohrabacher’s staff characterized the group that visited his office as noisy protesters from outside the district.

“They were going to come in, barge in and make it impossible to work,” Rohrabacher spokesman Kenneth Grubbs said, as quoted by the paper. “They are the disrupters of the peace.”

Constituents visiting Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s district office on January 24th, one week before they were locked out. Kopnick, who was there, said that the staff told the local paper later that they had “barged in chanting.” She says that in reality they tried hard to be respectful, and that she even brought cookies. CREDIT: Kari Kopnick.
Constituents visiting Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s district office on January 24th, one week before they were locked out. Kopnick, who was there, said that the staff told the local paper later that they had “barged in chanting.” She says that in reality they tried hard to be respectful, and that she even brought cookies. CREDIT: Kari Kopnick.

“It was just a really, really surreal experience because that is not what happened,” said Kopnick.

Lisenbery added that Rohrabacher’s staff members told the paper that the group didn’t look like constituents. “What is that supposed to mean? How does somebody look like where they’re supposed to live?”

The OC Register report was amended after the group contacted the paper, but the overall reception is emerging as a common refrain.

Multiple Republican members of Congress are dismissing the flood of calls, letters, visits, and protests in recent weeks, saying they’re being driven by paid protesters who don’t live in their districts — an excuse that’s also popular with the Trump administration.

On the same day that constituents found a locked door at Rohrabacher’s office, another delegation of the Indivisible group got the same reception at Rep. Mimi Walter’s office (R-CA) in nearby Irvine.

In Arkansas, a small group of constituents also found a locked door at Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) district office that week. They spoke to staff through the intercom, and were told the staff wouldn’t be taking any meetings because of “threats” to the office.

“They’ve turned off their telephones,” Sarah Scanlon, one of the constituents and the former national LGBTQ outreach director for Bernie Sanders’ campaign, told the Arkansas Times. “They’ve locked their doors, they’re not letting you in.”

In Tennessee, constituents of Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R) received a form letter in response to a request for a town hall in which he said “he had never seen so many sore losers as there are today.” The Twitter account for Indivisible East Tennessee posted the entire letter online.

In the letter, Duncan defended himself as “one of the most accessible members of Congress in this country.” But he said he will not agree to hold town halls for his constituents.

“I certainly do not need town halls to tell me how my constituents are feeling on the important issues of the day,” he said. “I am certainly not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks, and radicals.”

Last Wednesday, Rep. Peter Roskam’s (R-IL) district staff canceled a meeting with constituents after learning there was a reporter present. Then on Saturday, Roskam changed a scheduled meeting from open-door to members only. Hundreds gathered to protest outside and demand a town hall. Roskam snuck out the back of the building.

Roskam’s spokesman David Pasch defended his actions, alleging that the group was organized by the DCCC and saying that “these national groups are free to come into our community and exercise their First Amendment rights, but it’s not going to keep him from meeting with constituents.”

Theresa Hart, who was at the protest, told ThinkProgress in an email that Pasch’s account was incorrect. “These are grassroots groups formed on Facebook,” she said.

In Virginia, constituents of Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) were disappointed when she failed to show up to two scheduled meet-and-greet events last weekend. Another Virginia congressman, Dave Brat (R), complained at a meeting of conservative groups that since Congress started moving forward on an Obamacare repeal, “the women are in my grill no matter where I go.”

Video of Brat’s meeting was shared on the Facebook group 7th District Town Hall meeting — a Facebook group dedicated solely to the question of when Brat will hold a town meeting. A post from the group last week reads “funny how he has time for fundraisers and Facebook but cannot answer one simple question — when is the next Town Hall meeting?”

Constituents of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) in New Jersey are asking the same question. A grassroots group organized through the Facebook group “NJ 11th for Change” has been gathering every Friday at Frelinghuysen’s office to try to get an answer.

After weeks, staff told them that such events were difficult to plan and find a location for. In response, the group found venues in all four of Frelinghuysen’s districts during this month’s congressional recess. According to The New York Times, his constituents plan to show up even if he doesn’t.

Back in California, Rohrabacher’s constituents say they’re still waiting for a response from their congressman.

“The only way to represent the values of his constituents is to talk to his constituents, and to be visible within the community that he is supposed to represent,” said McCall. “I’m not feeling heard. And I can tell you that a lot of people are not feeling heard because Dana isn’t responding. We can’t find him.”

While they’ve yet to receive a commitment for a town hall, there is one place his constituents can reliably reach their congressman: On Twitter. But in Rohrabacher’s tweets, the message some of his constituents are receiving is that their representation stops at party lines.

“He’s not very respectful often, he called me silly, and he is defensive and rude, but at least he will engage with you. And I appreciate that,” said Kopnick.

Are you having a hard time getting in touch with your representative? Send me an email: lraymond@thinkprogress.org