On any given Tuesday, you’ll find as many as 150 Kansans populating the suburban sidewalk that surrounds Senator Pat Roberts’ Overland Park district office. According to Paffi Flood of Indivisible KC, the group is composed of “a mix of suburban moms, veterans, students, people who work and are on their lunch breaks, small business owners who can take time off to join…and retirees. We’ve even had people take a vacation day to come to our office visits. That’s civic engagement.” Flood confirms that none of the attending constituents has been paid in any way for their participation.
These Tuesday office visits, labeled “Resist Trump Tuesdays,” are peopled by moderate and progressive Kansans motivated by a common goal: resisting Trump’s agenda. Specific weekly actions have so far included protesting Education Secretary DeVos, supporting the Affordable Care Act (ACA), highlighting the Russian government’s infiltration of the election, and opposing the travel ban. However, Flood explains that the overarching purpose of the Tuesday office visits “is to make the voices of Kansans heard.”
In spite of repeated attempts to meet with Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, and requests for them to hold town-hall-style meetings, constituents have had a difficult time getting hold of them.
Initially, Roberts’ staffers allowed group office visits by constituents, but these have become less frequent and now come attached with terms and conditions after the meetings grew contentious. Leslie D. Mark, also of Indivisible KC, says that Roberts’ staff “began as cooperative, at least in terms of organizing visits” but that today they rarely respond to requests, if at all. “They used to communicate by email about appointment times and confirmation, but we do not get that courtesy anymore,” Mark adds.
Police have been called to Roberts’ district office on three occasions to date and have blocked constituent groups exceeding 12 people from attempting to enter the building. In the last month, his staffers have allowed only small groups of up to 12 into the building. Others have been turned away by police and directed to a public sidewalk that surrounds the building’s parking lot. Those permitted in Roberts’ office have been told they cannot text while there, nor take photos or videos.
There are conflicting reports on why these in-office visits have been limited in size. Roberts’ staffers claim the building’s manager called police due to concerns about overcrowding and the associated fire code violations. Speaking at a breakfast at the Kansas GOP convention in February, however, Roberts reported his staffers in fact called police to disband what he called “paid protestors” wanting to “intimidate” his staff and “delegitimize Trump.”
“This is a fight,” Roberts told attendees.
Paffi Flood sees the attempts at engagement differently: “We think all engagement with our elected officials is important. Not only do legislators need to know how their votes can affect their constituents from the stories we share, but the engagement itself gives [legislators] a clear idea of the level of interest by Kansans on a particular issue.”
During a 20-minute unscheduled conversation with a constituent group outside his Wichita office on February 21, Roberts reversed course: “Let me make sure the press here knows…we do have folks here certainly willing to listen to people exercising their First Amendment rights. We may not agree, but at least we’re having a meaningful dialogue.”
This is not the first time Roberts has been under fire for being out of touch with Kansans. He was criticized in The Washington Post in 2014 for maintaining a low profile and failing to own a residence in his home state. He has not held a town hall in the state since August 2016.
One Wichita constituent spoke to Roberts’ lack of a profile in Kansas: “As long as I’ve been active in Wichita, KS, you’ve never had a town hall…we’ve been waiting for years, and it hasn’t happened. We haven’t seen you for years.” At that point, Roberts turned the conversation to his committee obligations in DC and a minute later said, “I’ve got enough to worry about on the federal side.”
In lieu of a town hall hosted by Roberts or Moran, both Indivisible KC and Johnson County MoveOn organized “empty chair” town hall events in recess week to allow Kansans to voice their concerns and register their dissatisfaction. Roberts and Moran were invited to both events but did not attend, nor did staff reply to their invites.
“We invited them and when our invitations were ignored, we represented their absence from the town hall with their pictures on empty chairs,” says Flood.
“Members of Congress who care about their constituents show up, but these didn’t. We then had the audience address their ACA questions to them and fill out pre-printed cards with questions and concerns about the ACA which we will deliver to them.”
Though Moran did not show at Johnson County MoveOn’s town hall, Al Frisby and other MoveOn members were “elated that an estimated 600 constituents attended a panel discussion on Islamophobia, healthcare, the justice system, Planned Parenthood, and the media under the Trump Administration.”
Frisby added: “They [are] anxious to ask Senator Moran if he supported all of the President’s executive orders to date,” if and when they are able to engage with him.
Roberts’ Overland Park staff and Moran’s office in Olathe have confirmed they have no plans for a town hall at this point, but according to the former this is because “no one knows…we haven’t started planning the [March 16-17] recess yet.”
Members of Indivisble KC and Johnson County MoveOn are not holding their breath.
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