For 12 straight weeks, dozens of protesters have gathered outside U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s downtown Atlanta office to demand that he hold an in-person town hall meeting. This week, however, they decamped to a grassy strip outside a Brookhaven hotel where he was speaking to make a more personal appeal.
The crowd of more than 50, frustrated by Donald Trump’s young presidency and attempts to overhaul health policy, was part of an ongoing wave of civic activism targeted at Perdue and other Republicans as they returned home for a two-week recess after another tumultuous stretch in Congress.
“We need to hold our elected officials accountable, and this is his job,” Ellen Williams, one of the protesters, said outside Perdue’s event. “This is his job, and he can’t be afraid to meet with his constituents. If you don’t want to work with us, then you’ve got the wrong boss in mind.”
Perdue is far from the only Republican under fire from restless Trump critics. Demonstrations at other events across the state were aimed at embarrassing other GOP members of Congress. But as perhaps Georgia’s most influential politician — and its most outspoken high-profile supporter of Trump — Perdue is squarely at the center of the tide of protests.
And he’s largely taken the criticism in stride, saying he held “impromptu” town hall meetings during the last recess while making an unannounced visit to the state Capitol. And, he added, he and his deputies often meet with constituents in Washington and in Georgia to hear their concerns.
“Right now, it’s a question of method more than anything,” Perdue said. “I’m quite happy that we’re getting the input I need to have.”
The pressure to face voters at town hall meetings, largely from groups of liberal Georgians, is considerable as Trump approaches his 100th day in office.
Callers have pummeled the phones and email inboxes of the state’s congressmen with feedback on issues such as Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the president’s moves to temporarily block refugees from entering the country.
And then there’s Republicans’ semi-shelved effort to replace Obamacare. The House GOP’s legislation was deeply unpopular, and some Republican lawmakers increasingly talk of hashing out some sort of compromise with Democrats over the measure.
But many of Georgia’s Republicans appear skittish about holding in-person events during the month of April, what is traditionally a popular month for town hall meetings. They often say that telephone meetings and small-group gatherings are just as effective — if not better — than traditional town halls.
According to the nonpartisan congressional tracking site LegiStorm, there are 209 town halls overall scheduled during this congressional recess. That’s down 25 percent from this time last year, when many lawmakers were running for re-election, and 23 percent from 2015.
Events being held by Georgia Republicans over the next several weeks appear to be limited to invitation-only affairs such as Perdue’s business luncheon Tuesday, according to the website the Town Hall Project.
Monroe Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice is paying a visit to a military academy day in Marietta on April 29, but that is limited only to ticket-holders. The office of U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, is hosting events to help constituents in Chattooga and Polk counties tackle Social Security and veterans’ benefits cases, and the congressman is unlikely to attend them.
But Graves held a telephone town hall last month that attracted roughly 8,000 constituents, said his spokesman, Garrett Hawkins.
“With all the big issues before Congress, Representative Graves wanted to reach as many constituents as possible,” Hawkins said, “and that was the most effective method.”
A testy town hall
There’s reason for Republicans to be wary. Rowdy events in Colorado and Utah drew negative headlines and jeering crowds, and in some cases lawmakers sneaked out through back exits. Some say that many demonstrators are not even constituents and that they are instead looking to manufacture a spectacle.
Indeed, an in-person town hall held in February by U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, was a testy affair, as was a staff-led event that Perdue’s, Hice’s and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s offices held earlier this year.
The lack of in-person events has prompted criticism from protesters that Republicans are looking to shirk their constituents and duck hard questions. They say the telephone town halls and small-group events can be overly controlled since aides can monitor them and filter out tough questions.
Democrats, who faced much of the same town hall backlash after Barack Obama’s election as president, aren’t exactly rushing to fill the void.
The only traditional town hall that’s been scheduled in the state so far this month is being sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, has a similar event scheduled with students Wednesday at Atlanta’s Rialto Center for the Arts.
Perdue, for his part, said he prefers more intimate meetings with constituents and unscheduled sit-downs. He talked about a recent event at the Georgia Capitol with some upset voters.
“We answered their questions,” he said. “We didn’t agree on much, but we heard their input.”
That doesn’t go far enough for many in the crowd of regulars who now wait outside Perdue’s events. Among them is Betty Merriman, a Tucker Democrat who has attended the past four protests outside his office.
“I just want to share my concerns with him,” she said. “And I just want him to speak up to Trump.”