While Tom Garrett carried the 5th District with 58 percent of the vote, his popularity didn’t seep into the Dem-majority Charlottesville area. In office less than a month, the new congressman has had hundreds of protesters show up every week at his Berkmar Crossing office, to the consternation of some of the business park’s owners and tenants.
Like the new president, whom he supported, Garrett has taken to Twitter, and some constituents are bothered by the tone of the tweets. Still more complain about Garrett holding Facebook town halls rather than addressing constituents face to face, and at least one citizen says Garrett has blocked him on Twitter.
And that’s all before his first month anniversary.
“It’s becoming a nuisance,” says Chuck Lebo, who owns a condo in the same building as Garrett’s in Berkmar Crossing. “I consider it private property. I have tenants that rent from me having a hard time finding spaces to park.”
Protesters who took part in the February 11 demonstration organized by Charlottesville NOW tore up grass and bushes and left trash, says Lebo.
Lebo faced a related private property issue before in 2005, when he managed Shoppers World, now known as 29th Place. Then-House of Delegates candidate Rich Collins was campaigning in the Whole Foods parking lot and refused to leave the privately owned center. Collins was charged with trespassing, and later acquitted on appeal.
The latest congressional office is not the only occasion the right to assemble and petition one’s government has clashed with property rights locally. After Democrat Tom Perriello took office in 2009, he rented space downtown in the rear of the Glass Building, which was the scene of frequent Tea Party protests, until the building’s owner booted them to the public sidewalk after an Americans for Prosperity bus took up eight spaces, for which other tenants paid $100 each and complained they couldn’t use.
Carole Thorpe, chair emeritus of the Jefferson Area Tea Party, says her group protested at Berkmar a few times after Robert Hurt was elected in 2010 and moved his office there. “This crowd seems to be a little louder,” she says, noting that tea partiers “skewed older” and “behaved ourselves.”
She suggests congressmen put their offices somewhere centrally located where activists won’t impede others, because “that comes with territory.”
Garrett spokesperson Andrew Griffin says his office had gotten complaints, and after the first protest, property owners spoke with police about demonstrators blocking doors and parking lots. The second rally, he says, “was much more respectful of other tenants in the building.”
He adds, “[W]e welcome people to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and to protest.”
David Singerman with Indivisible Charlottesville, which plans weekly demonstrations at Berkmar Crossing, says his group is trying to find alternate parking and be respectful of business owners, but points out, “Congressman Garrett works for us. He’s put his office in a place that has insufficient parking and is not easily accessible by foot.”
Craig DuBose takes issue with a tweet in which Garrett referred to Berkeley protesters as “nazi fascists.”
“This has been a pattern of his on Twitter,” says DuBose. “To me it’s embarrassing and insulting. If you can’t grasp how totally inappropriate that is and how far beneath the dignity of the office it is, it’s completely astounding.”
Local realtor Jim Duncan says Garrett blocked him on his GarrettforVA Twitter account after he asked three times whether Garrett was going to seek to investigate the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.
Griffin says no one has been blocked on Garrett’s official Rep_Tom_Garrett account unless they’ve issued death threats, but that the GarrettforVA account is personal. “If Tom chooses to block people on his personal account, it is perfectly within his rights to do so,” says Griffin in an e-mail.
Duncan, too, feels Garrett’s tone is unbecoming an elected official, and mentions a tweet in which Garrett responded to #clown by saying, “No need to bring [Senate minority leader] @chuckschumer into this!”
Of course Garrett is not the only local politician whose tweets are causing controversy. Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy’s vulgar tweets from a few years ago inspired a petition to recall him from office (see story on page 10).
Protesters have been clamoring for a town hall meeting with Garrett, and last week, he held events on Facebook February 13 and 15. That, too, drew a chorus of complaints.
“He gets to filter the questions,” says Indivisible’s Singerman. “He can stall and it’s harder to interrupt if he’s not answering.”
The timing of the video events is also a problem, says Singerman. “A lot of people in the 5th District don’t have Internet access, and 9pm is an inconvenient time when libraries and restaurants with Wi-Fi are closed.”
“It was a complete failure,” says DuBose of the first event. “The question I phoned in was not the question asked. They posed a general question that didn’t address the specific question I asked and allowed him to read from the script.”
“Facebook hall questions being changed simply isn’t true,” says Sullivan. “Some were paraphrased on the first town hall because we were reading them as they were rolling through the comment feed and with over 6,200 pouring in, I was jotting notes as quickly as possible.”
Because of the complaints, at the second Internet town hall, questions were “literally copied and pasted from Monday night so that there was no confusion, so for anyone claiming last night was not read correctly is being disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst,” says Griffin.
As for in-person town halls, Griffins says a schedule for future events will be put out, but he doesn’t have a time frame for when.