When U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall took questions at a forum in Lawrenceville Thursday evening, he called most of his questioners by their first names.
That’s because there are few regulars at the United Tea Party of Georgia’s monthly meeting the four-term Republican doesn’t know. What was missing was angry commentary about the health care bill passed by House Republicans last month or uncomfortable questions about the latest in the Russia investigation.
That’s because Woodall’s appearance was a closely guarded secret. An email from the group Monday touted a “special guest” speaker but withheld the name.
“For reasons that will be made clear at the meeting we are not announcing our speaker, but he is very knowledgeable on on the politics of the day,” the email said, “especially at the federal level.”
While there were communications to the group suggesting that Woodall’s staff asked that the event not be pre-publicized to avoid protests, Woodall said that was not the case.
“That would stun me. That is not our policy,” he said.
But Woodall did not publicize the appearance at the meeting, held in a restaurant at the Gwinnett County Airport, on his social network feeds or his Congressional web page.
David Hancock, United Tea Party co-chairman, said there was back-and-forth communication between his group and Woodall’s staff over keeping the event quiet. Nobody wanted to deal with protesters, he said.
“I wanted to have a meeting just like we had last night,” he said “That was a dream meeting. If we had four or five people there whose job it was just to disrupt, we wouldn’t have gotten that.”
Woodall, one of the more conservative members at the Capitol, told the tea party group he had no intention of providing a forum for protests from the left.
“It is true that we have been protested. We’ve had more meetings people have tried to take over in the last six months than the last six years,” he said. “And where do you think they learned the techniques they are using? It’s tea party doctrine right down the line.”
He’s right about the tea party’s claim on town hall activism. In 2009, tea party groups harassed congressional town halls from coast to coast, billowing their ire over Obamacare to the point that, like today, members of Congress stopped holding them.
But Ilene Johnson, communications director for the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, said that doesn’t give Woodall a free pass to hide from people who disagree with him. Virtually every post on his Facebook page includes a comment demanding a town hall.
“He has an obligation to hear all points of view,” Johnson said. “He is obligated to represent everybody and not just the people who voted for him.”
Gabe Okoye, chairman of the Gwinnett Democrats, said plans are in the works for a District 7 town hall for everyone, whether or not Woodall attends.
“It won’t be secret. Everybody can come,” he said. “We’ll leave a chair for Mr. Woodall in case he shows up.”
Okoye said members of congress should be expected to hold in person meetings with a broad range of constituents, not just reporters.
“He doesn’t just represent the Republicans, he represents all of us,” he said.
Town halls down sharply
Woodall, R-Ga., has avoided traditional town hall meetings since President Donald Trump’s inauguration despite constant requests to do so. But he is hardly alone among his congressional colleagues.
In a story this week, Politico.com noted that Congressional town halls are down sharply during this month’s legislative break compared to the April recess — not not just among Republicans. While GOP town halls are down drastically, such forums from Democratic members of Congress fell 14 percent when comparing the two breaks.
The drop off raises the question of whether members of Congress have an obligation to hold more public forums in their districts, even if it means facing hostile crowds.
Woodall has represented the 7th District since 2011. Before that he was chief of staff for former 7th District Rep. John Linder, who handed him the keys when he retired.
Georgia’s 7th District stretches from Snellville in the south up to Cumming and has been pretty safe for Woodall. He didn’t have a primary opponent last year and clobbered a political unknown in the general election, taking 60 percent of the vote.
Since Trump’s election, Woodall has done some town halls by telephone, a preferred alternative to those eschewing the face-to-face type. But in past years, he’s also held regular, honest-to-goodness town halls.
It’s not like he didn’t get criticism then. One frequent online critic who attended a town hall last year in Cumming went on the congressman’s Facebook page to tell him his comments on drug pricing were “pretty dumb.”
And the telephone town halls don’t insulate him from criticism either. Angry callers were on hand for one such conference call in February as Woodall gamely defended the president against those worried about conflicts from Trump’s business interests and ties to Russia.
“What I love about the outsiders that have taken over the White House is that it gives us the ability to look at the world through new eyes,” Woodall said, according to a story in the Gwinnett Daily Post. “I think one of the ways President Trump looks at the world through different eyes is ‘Why are we still fighting with Russia 40 years later?’”
The Post reported that his reply prompted shouts and name calling.
‘No responsibility to help protesters’
Woodall took some tough question at Thursday’s gathering too. Tea party members held his feet to the fire on enacting tougher immigration standards, fighting for tax reform and supporting the president.
To his credit, Woodall did not always tell them exactly what they wanted to hear, including his support for visas for the high-tech industry and agriculture and his insistence that Congress has a duty to counterbalance presidential power. But in the end, folks lined up to shake his hand rather than jab their fingers at him.
For the folks not in the United Tea Party who missed a chance to question their congressman, Woodall said he’s happy to meet with them in his office.
“Folks don’t think your congressman will sit down with you,” he said.
Johnson, the Democratic activist, allows that Woodall does take appointments to meet with constituents. But she said not everybody can take off from work to upbraid their elected official. Town halls, usually held in the evening, are more responsive, she said.
For that opportunity, it’s likely she will keep waiting.
“I feel no responsibility to help protesters protest,” Woodall said.
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