By Rachael Bade
At a closed-door meeting, House lawmakers discuss strategies to counter potential violence.
House Republicans during a closed-door meeting Tuesday discussed how to protect themselves and their staffs from protesters storming town halls and offices in opposition to repealing Obamacare, sources in the room told Politico.
House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers invited Rep. David Reichert, a former county sheriff, to present lawmakers with protective measures they should have in place. Among the suggestions: having a physical exit strategy at town halls, or a backdoor in congressional offices to slip out of, in case demonstrations turn violent; having local police monitor town halls; replacing any glass office-door entrances with heavy doors and deadbolts; and setting up intercoms to ensure those entering congressional offices are there for appointments, not to cause chaos.
“The message was: One, be careful for security purposes. Watch your back. And two, be receptive. Honor the First Amendment, engage, be friendly, be nice,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.). “Because it is toxic out there right now. Even some of the guys who have been around here a lot longer than I have, have never seen it to this level.”
He later added: “For those of us who have children in grade school and that kind of thing, there’s a factor in all of this, saying: How far will the progressive movement go to try to intimidate us?”
The conference discussion comes as Democratic activists around the nation ramp up protests against Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. Protesters have disrupted town halls and other public events, jeering and yelling at Republicans just as conservatives did to Democrats when they were writing the law eight years ago. Conservative protesters in 2009 and 2010 were accused of spitting on and hurling racial epithets at Democratic lawmakers ahead of their votes to pass Obamacare. Republicans denied the accusations at the time.
Last weekend, conservative Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) similarly had to be escorted out of a town hall meeting by a half-dozen police officers after the crowd turned angry. And just as Republicans were leaving their conference meeting Tuesday, more than 100 protesters showed up at one of Rep. Martha McSally’s Arizona congressional offices, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
Also discussed at the closed-door conference meeting was how to engage Democratic constituents to ensure they feel they’re being heard. After Reichert (R-Wash.) spoke about the security side, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) stood up to talk about how to engage constituents in a “congenial” manner.
Asked about the intensity of the protests during a news conference after the meeting, Ryan said he hopes the demonstrations remain nonviolent.
“Peaceful protests are something we honor in this country,” he said. “I just hope people keep it peaceful.”
Democrats, meanwhile, dismissed Republicans’ security ramp-up as an attempt to shield themselves from criticism.
“I think what you’re seeing is Republicans trying to use security to try to hide themselves from their constituents because they have no plan for a replacement and very little support from Donald Trump,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “They’re going to use so-called security to keep people away.”
But the potential for violence is serious enough that the House sergeant-at-arms has asked congressional offices to notify the office of any potential threat, sources told Politico. The office will also be passing out manuals of best practices to keep staffers safe.
McMorris Rodgers last week pulled together a group of lawmakers, including Reichert, to strategize on how to best manage and respond to the spreading protests. The Washington Republican — who during an early January speech was drowned out by protesters shouting “Save our care!” — asked Reichert to present some pointers to the full conference.
Reichert, in a brief interview after the conference meeting, said lawmakers are dealing with more than just unruly town hall meetings. He said organizers are coming into their offices unannounced, showing up with signs and flooding offices with phone calls. Reichert said he told lawmakers they should “make sure you have a back door in your office if there is some sort of danger.”
“It’s not that you run from protesters, but if someone presents some sort of physical threat or are espousing a verbal threat that could lead to a physical threat, if you feel that you’re in danger and your staff is in danger, call 911 and leave and go out the back door,” he said.
Reichert also encouraged them to “make sure you have a hard door, not a glass door” that can shatter, and install an “intercom system with a camera at the front so you can see who is there.”
“The world is sometimes not a friendly place,” he said, specifically noting what happened to Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman who was shot in the head at a constituent event in 2011. “There is a mission out there right now amongst some people to disrupt the offices of certain members … to make us look inaccessible, unresponsive and like we’re not doing anything. … There is a list of things you can do to make sure your people are safe.”
Reichert also recounted how several angry constituents “bum-rushed” into his office several years ago, blowing past a staffer. Afterward, his office reached out to the organizers of the local group and asked them to come back in groups of eight to 10 to hear their concerns. He suggested lawmakers take a similar diplomatic tack in their own districts.
“The biggest thing we can do is reach out to these people,” Reichert said. “When you have 40 to 50 people show[ing] up with protest signs, there is no way we’re going to have an opportunity to exchange ideas and thoughts. So you’ve got to build a relationship so you don’t get to the level where they feel they need to threaten or antagonize you or try to get you upset and get a YouTube moment.”
At one point, GOP leaders showed a video of what happened to McClintock (R-Calif.) this weekend during his town hall meeting. Lawmakers teased McClintock — “What did you do to get arrested?” one asked. But then the conversation turned back to safety precautions.
One member who asked not to be named said the meeting also touched on threats against lawmakers.
The presentation was particularly important, those in attendance said, because it’s not just the most politically vulnerable, moderate members being targeted by protesters. Conservatives have also seen Democratic activists show up at events, including one recently hosted by Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who ousted former Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Many of these lawmakers in safe districts have never dealt with such severe blowback.
Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) said it was important to address the matter.
“If you look at what the left is doing,” he said, “they can endanger your constituents or your staff” who are just trying to do their jobs.
This story has been updated to reflect that the alleged misbehavior at the 2009 and 2010 protests was disputed.