With police watching, lawmakers resume meetings
Friday, January 14, 2011
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Rep. Shelley Berkley threw open the doors of her congressional office Friday, inviting constituents to stop in to ask questions, lodge complaints or plead for help.
There was no metal detector, no pat-downs. People had only to fill out a card to see the congresswoman.
The open house was much the same as the event held by Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a week ago, except for one thing: In Las Vegas, five patrol cars idled in the parking lot.
At least a half-dozen lawmakers around the country met with constituents Friday at gatherings similar to the “Congress on Your Corner” meeting where Giffords was shot through the head. The events, they said, would send a message: Violence will not keep us from meeting face-to-face with our constituents at supermarkets, hardware stores or anywhere else.
“This country is based on democracy, and democracy didn’t just fall into our laps,” said Carrie Matt, a casino accountant who came to talk to Berkley about student financial aid and health care. “It was hard-fought, and no one is going to deter me from accessing my democracy.”
At Giffords’ outdoor event on Jan. 8, a young man asked where the congresswoman was, and aides asked him to get in line. Moments later, he shot her and 18 others. Six people were killed.
The threat of copycat attacks resulted in stepped-up security. Rep. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut held a meeting late Thursday at a supermarket in Simsbury. Police sent an officer, who stood by inconspicuously as shoppers spoke with the congressman.
Last week’s shooting won’t have any sort of “chilling effect on political dialogue,” said Murphy, who had an office next to Giffords in Washington and considered her a good friend.
“In fact, I think it may do the exact opposite. Last night, there were a lot of people who stopped by simply to tell us how happy they were that we were getting back out and doing these type of listening events.”
With many members of Congress returning home from Washington for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, similar events were planned in Minnesota, Georgia and Connecticut.
Berkley said she was inspired to organize a “Congress on Your Corner” event after Giffords was wounded, but other legislators have hosted them for years.
One is Democratic Rep. John Barrow, who scheduled several events for Saturday at a hardware store, a grocery store and a mall in his east Georgia district, which — like Giffords’ — is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
But this week, for the first time, Barrow alerted police about his plans and expected officers to be on hand.
Barrow said he regretted having to summon law enforcement, but he acknowledged that “it’s probably a good idea, if only to reassure people that the deeply disturbed elements out there won’t be a threat.”
Barrow does not blame political vitriol for contributing to last weekend’s shooting, believing it was the work of a “single disturbed individual.”
“And that is a hard thing to protect against when you are in the public eye,” he said.
Elsewhere on Friday, Rep. Tim Walz organized an event at a supermarket in Mankato, Minn., and Rep. Keith Ellison was meeting with constituents at a Minneapolis market. Both are Democrats.
Giffords began holding “Congress on Your Corner” events in 2006, when she and other freshmen Democrats were encouraged by their national leadership to meet directly with constituents.
Republicans also have similar gatherings when they’re home. Republican House members were at a party retreat this weekend, but they are expected to be out again next weekend, said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
Berkley, who is in her seventh term, reflected in an interview on divisive politics and whether the political climate played any role in the Giffords shooting.
“The reality is we haven’t been behaving very well as leaders of our nation,” Berkley told The Associated Press. “I hope this is a turning point.”
The events in Arizona seemed to inspire some fresh interest in grassroots democracy.
Bo Tian, a 48-year-old Las Vegas blackjack dealer, brought his 9-year-old daughter, Ming Hui Tian, to Berkley’s event.
Tian, a Chinese immigrant, said it was the first time he had met a lawmaker. His daughter is the same age as Christina Taylor Green, one of the six people slain in the Tucson attack.
“It is a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the congresswoman,” he said.