Craig DuBose made his appointment February 1 to meet with Congressman Tom Garrett in the congressman’s Charlottesville office March 6. Heather Rowland made hers February 10. Both constituents called to confirm their appointments before showing up at Garrett’s Berkmar Crossing office, and both were dismayed to learn Garrett wasn’t there.
“I was disappointed,” says DuBose, a carpenter. “I had taken the day off from work. It’s common courtesy to notify if you have to cancel.”
Garrett’s chief of staff, Kevin Reynolds, said it was a scheduling mistake.
Rowland says she confirmed her meeting with Garrett the morning of March 6. Reynolds told her that, too, was a mistake, and she should have been told “or with an aide,” she says.
Rowland is a volunteer counselor who helps people sign up for the Affordable Care Act, and that’s why she and a couple of colleagues wanted to meet with Garrett. “I felt we had insights about constituents who had benefited from the Affordable Care Act,” she says, noting that 36,000 people in the 5th District signed up in 2016.
“They’re good upstanding members of the community who happen to not earn very much,” she says. Garrett is critical of Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan, and Rowland describes Garrett’s health care vision as basically a health savings account. “If you have no money, there’s no way you’ll have money for an HSA,” she adds.
Meeting with Reynolds was not the same as meeting with the congressman, she says. “He’s taking your message but not answering your questions,” she explains.
DuBose says he called several times the week before to confirm the meeting, and when he showed up at the district office, he was told Garrett had other meetings in Nelson County, where he met with the Farm Bureau. “If these other meetings were planned and I called last week to confirm mine, they had a half dozen times to let me know,” he says. “That’s just bad form.”
Rowland and DuBose weren’t the only constituents stood up by the scheduling snafu. Some members of Indivisible Charlottesville, which has regularly scheduled protests at Garrett’s office and held a town hall meeting without him February 26, also had appointments that day.
Indivisible Charlottesville lies “perpetually,” Garrett told the Lynchburg News-Advance. “They’re like the kid in school who nobody talks to because every word that comes out of his mouth is a lie.”
“They should get their story straight before calling community groups liars,” says Indivisible’s David Singerman.
Garrett stands by the characterization. According to his office, Reynolds has reached out to several Indivisible leaders, including Singerman on March 6, and says they refused to meet with him or, in another case, to take phone calls from Garrett.
Garrett spokesperson Andrew Griffin also challenges Indivisible claims of wanting “civil dialogue” and “nonviolence,” and says Reynolds was called an “S.O.B.” by a bullhorn-wielding Indivisible Nelson member on March 6, and another has “wished death” on Garrett in an online forum.
“Our staff and congressman are routinely cursed, threatened and mocked by people from this group despite their wish for ‘civil dialogue,’” says Griffin.
Singerman recalls that years ago, when he was an intern in the House of Representatives, congressmen considered district work meetings “sacrosanct.” He says, “I’m pretty shocked Garrett would stand up his constituents that way.”
He adds, “It’s a bad precedent with what it says about Garrett’s commitment to the 5th District.”
Or maybe it’s not so much the 5th District for the Republican congressman as it is Dem-leaning Charlottesville, suggests DuBose. “They’ve made the calculation they really don’t have to deal with people in Charlottesville.”
Garrett is not the first congressman named Tom who has been called upon to face angry constituents. Tom Perriello was elected in 2008 and his support for the Affordable Care Act cost him a second term.
“I think you have a moral obligation to hear from your constituents—even the ones you don’t agree with,” says Perriello. “It’s not that hard. You show up and listen. They’re your boss.”
Perriello had “a couple dozen” town halls and “stayed until the last question was answered,” even if it was past midnight, he says.
Garrett has scheduled a March 31 town hall at UVA’s Batten School, where 135 tickets will be distributed by lottery. An earlier March 13 event was changed because of yet another scheduling conflict.
“It seems pretty pitiful to me,” says Perriello. “You can do both—have a large town hall and a smaller event. The only reason to restrict attendance is you don’t want to answer constituents.”
However, Griffin cites safety concerns—and the riot at the University of California-Berkeley because of an invitation to former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos—as the reason for having the Batten School host the town hall.
“The issue with a spirited crowd is the potential for violence, intimidation and disenfranchisement by members of a greater, more spirited crowd,” he says. “We are adamant that we will not subject any constituent, regardless of their political support, to this potential scenario.”
Perriello offers advice to congressmen considering the repeal and replacement of Obamacare: “This is not a game. This is people’s lives.” And that requires “standing in front of them and hearing their stories,” he says. “Sometimes you shouldn’t be quite so afraid to do the right thing.”
And while DuBose and others didn’t get to meet with the current 5th District representative March 6, Garrett did make it to Charlottesville March 11 to meet with the Albemarle County Republican Committee at its monthly Sam’s Kitchen breakfast.
Correction 12:37pm: Griffin was misidentified in one reference.