Members of Congress no-shows at town halls, so voters are holding events with cardboard cutouts

When lawmakers refuse to hold in-person town halls, groups in many districts are taking matters into their own hands.

A constituent of congressman Dave Brat, R-Va., gestures as she responded to the congressman during a town hall meeting with the congressman in Blackstone, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Brat held a town hall after intense criticism this week, but many other lawmakers are ducking the open forums. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
A constituent of congressman Dave Brat, R-Va., gestures as she responded to the congressman during a town hall meeting with the congressman in Blackstone, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Brat held a town hall after intense criticism this week, but many other lawmakers are ducking the open forums. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

In the first week of recess of a new congressional term, lawmakers usually return to their home districts for events with their constituents.

This year, however, many lawmakers are skipping the events amidst a groundswell of protesters, many of whom want a chance to talk to their representatives about the proposed repeal of Obamacare and Trump’s agenda.

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Constituents in some of those districts, frustrated with congressional stonewalling, are planning their own events and inviting their lawmakers — then using stand-ins when they fail to show.

In California, constituents of Rep. Darrell Issa (R) held an event at a recreation center about 5 miles from Issa’s district headquarters. The group that organized Tuesday’s gathering raised thousands of dollars for a full-page newspaper ad encouraging Issa to attend.

Like many of the nascent groups around the country, they are organizing around the Indivisible Guide, which aims to help constituents be more effective in their civil engagement.

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The event Tuesday night was packed, with more outside. Inside people passed out “missing” posters for their representative. Issa was represented at the meeting by a cardboard cutout of “Where’s Waldo” with his face taped on.

Issa’s failure to show wasn’t a surprise. According to local media, a spokesman said he had a competing engagement on Tuesday night. While Issa spoke with about 225 constituents who were camped outside his office earlier that day, he has yet to plan an open town hall.

In Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner (R) also declined an invitation to a town hall. At one point everyone in the packed room held up their driver’s licenses to prove that they were Colorado residents.

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Gardner had previously dismissed the influx of calls to his office as “paid protesters from other parts of the country” in a January interview, echoing a now-popular GOP talking point against the massive backlash against Obamacare repeal and Trump’s executive orders.

Gardner’s aides defended his outreach efforts to local media before the planned event, and said that he’d previously used telephone town halls — which have become a popular substitute. Lawmakers say that the tele-town halls enable them to reach more constituents, but they also allow the lawmaker to stay in control, filter questions, and avoid embarrassing viral moments.

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In Illinois, a local progressive group held a similar event. They invited Rep. Adam Kinzinger to attend, but a spokesperson said his schedule was already set when he received the invite.

The group met anyway, and represented Kinzinger with an empty suit.

In Maryland, Rep. Andy Harris (R) was also a no-show. His was represented by an empty chair marked “Reserved for Andy Harris.”

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) constituents were similarly disappointed.

Toomey has been targeted since the election with calls for a traditional town hall in “Tuesdays with Toomey” — local activists that show up at his office weekly to demand his attention. Every week, they submit letters with their concerns and reiterate the call for a town hall. This Tuesday, the group organized a traditional town hall themselves — absent their representative.

At the community church in Allentown, they stood an empty suit at the front of the forum.

https://twitter.com/INDIVISIBLENEP1/status/834233247307558912/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis’ (R) constituents took the chair approach, leaving an empty metal chair for their absent representative.

Tillis himself was far away on a congressional delegation tour of the U.S. border with Mexico.

In a response to the activists demanding he hold an open in-person town hall in North Carolina earlier this month, Tillis cited the difficulty in planning such events — and alluded to their propensity to spawn bad publicity.

“Finally, as of late, it has become apparent that some individuals who are not really interested in meaningful dialogue attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles,” he wrote, according to local reporting.

Now, activists are finding creative ways to make their lawmakers’ continued absences and excuses into media spectacles in and of themselves.