Ever since the election of President Trump, Republican members of congress have encountered protesters and critical questions at town hall meetings all over the country as liberals, now shut out of power in Washington, try to find a way to influence policy. But some representatives, including one in Central New Jersey, have dodged controversy by avoiding holding town hall meetings altogether.
On February 8 U.S. 1 profiled Democratic congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, whose district covers the northern part of the Route 1 Corridor. Her relationship with anti-Trump protesters has been a friendly one, with the congresswoman happy to be photographed amid the sign-wielding crowds. The southern part of the corridor, from Hamilton down, however, falls within the 4th district, where Republican Chris Smith has had a comfortable hold on his seat since 1981. He is now encountering critics at public events, and at his own office.
Many of the left-wing activist groups that have sprung up this winter are using a document called the Indivisible Guide as a playbook (available at www.indivisibleguide.com). Created by former congressional staffers, the Indivisible Guide advises citizens on how to influence their local members of congress by applying pressure where they will feel it most; in the local media; in their offices; or at “town hall” meetings where members of Congress take questions from their constituents. Its authors took inspiration from the Tea Party, the conservative activists who mobilized citizens in 2010 against the Affordable Care Act.
Utah Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz made national headlines earlier in February when he was booed by protestors and faced a barrage of critical questions from constituents at a town hall meeting. And as a Republican in a blue state, Smith would seem like a good candidate to face a repeat of that spectacle, but for the fact that he has not held any town hall meetings lately.
Indivisible NJ 4th District has been asking Smith to hold a Town Hall meeting, but the group says he has not held one since 1992. Without a proper venue for a Q&A session, members of Indivisible and other activist groups turned up at a February 10 meeting at the Manalapan Library, where Smith was talking to the Alzheimers Association.
Audience members asked Smith questions about the Affordable Care Act, which is popular among Democrats, but which Republican leaders have vowed to repeal. They also asked him to hold a town hall meeting. The group says Smith declined, and Indivisible posted a video of his reply to YouTube.
“We’ve had people say they want to kidnap me. We’ve had people say they want to kill me,” Smith says on the video.
Smith, who did not reply to a request for comment on this story, told the Asbury Park Press that he has not held a town hall in years because his office has received 17 threats, and that once an angry man slammed the door in his office and called the staff bastards.
Activists, however, are not letting Smith off the hook because of kidnapping fears. About 100 of them turned up at his office on Valentine’s Day to invite him to a meeting the 4th District Coalition for Change had organized in opposition to the Republican proposal to repeal the ACA. The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, at 6 p.m. at the Monmouth County Library headquarters at 125 Symmes Drive in Manalapan.
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On the Northwestern boundaries of the Route 1 Corridor, the 7th district, represented by Republican Leonard Lance, includes parts of Somerset and Hunterdon counties. Unlike Smith, Lance is scheduled to hold town halls on Wednesday and Saturday, February 22 and 25. Princeton-area activists are planning to gather at both to protest.
The progressive group Princeton Marching Forward, an ad hoc group that came together after the Women’s March on Washington the day after the Trump inauguration, plans to attend the Leonard Lance town halls.
The group is also holding a meeting on Monday, February 27, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. a home on Elm Ridge Road in Pennington. Democratic state assemblyman Andrew Zwicker will speak. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PrincetonMarchingForward.