When he set out to reclaim the 8th District congressional seat he lost in 2006, Mike Fitzpatrick was part of a group of about two dozen Republicans interrupting an event held by Congressman Patrick Murphy, and demanding to be heard.
Health care reform had captured the angst of the tea party movement in 2009 and the crowd was adamant that Murphy, a Democrat who supported the Affordable Care Act, hold a districtwide town hall to publicly explain his position.
Murphy, who often held “Congressman on Your Corner” events at supermarkets, enjoyed greeting people in a smaller, more personal environment. Indeed, the meetings he was holding at the Middletown Township building the day of the GOP invasion were scheduled one-on-ones.
Fast forward four years and Fitzpatrick, now in his third term, is the one who citizens are demanding to hear from in a public forum. Left-leaning constituents are calling on him to hold districtwide town halls — as he did in 2011 — and stick to his promise, made after the 2010 election, to become “the most accessible member of Congress that anybody can remember.”
Instead, Fitzpatrick has developed a practice to strategically silence the opposition by limiting events to certain towns and forcing questions to be written out at many events, essentially squelching any back-and-forth with the audience in favor of his soliloquy.
He does indeed get around his district, working long days on summer recess, but his audiences of business, veterans groups, Scouts and schools are smaller, more targeted, and captive to his vanilla presentation.
The traditional town hall event into which he tried to pressure Murphy no longer takes place and it’s left some constituents feeling “muzzled” and “disenfranchised.”
‘Blow to the gut’
One woman who calls his office every workday for meeting information has been told he doesn’t have any that day only to find out later by Fitzpatrick’s postings on Facebook and Twitter that she has been lied to.
“I am feeling as though I suffered a blow to the gut,” said Theresa BrownGold of New Britain Township.
Several letters to the newspaper in recent weeks point to the frustration. One, by Carl Kemmerer, a Democrat from Springtown in Upper Bucks, described a one-hour meeting with about 40 people as “a waste of time and certainly not a town meeting.”
He said Fitzpatrick spoke for about 20 minutes and then took only three questions, which had to be submitted with names and addresses on 3-by-5 cards.
“It’s a disappointing thing when you’d like to stand up and ask a live question and get an answer in a timely manner,” Kemmerer said in a telephone interview. “You would hope that he would take as many questions and get as many views as possible. These events have become, quite frankly, staged that all you hear is party-line propaganda.”
That was the complaint at another recent event at the lower county campus of Bucks County Community College, where Fitzpatrick and David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general, spoke about a congressional “problem-solving” group Walker founded called “No Labels.”
Pegged as a town hall, Fitzpatrick and Walker had no disagreements and their conversation allowed for only about six questions, all submitted on written cards.
“I have never been so disappointed with such a meeting,” wrote Rick Lutz, a former Republican and now a registered Libertarian from Bristol Township. “The people were totally controlled as to what questions they could ask, and that was done by having them write the questions on pieces of paper before the meeting. Otherwise, the people were to keep their mouths shut while the people running the meeting talked down to them.”
During the talk, Walker said the 8th District race was one of only 35 in the nation considered competitive. Fitzpatrick said he considered that a positive because a “more challenging district makes me a better representative. I have to listen and respect everyone’s opinion.”
The words have irritated those who contend he has refused to hear them.
BrownGold, a former independent who became a Democrat to vote in the primaries, logs the daily calls she makes to Fitzpatrick’s office seeking information about town hall meetings at artassocialinquiry.org. An advocate for health care reform, she said workers in Fitzpatrick’s office told her he had no public meetings on days when he did.
“Is the congressman’s staff deliberately lying to a constituent? I think so,” she said. “Why is this congressman deliberately trying to control who knows about his town halls? How long can he get away with it?
“We the constituents are powerless against the big PR machine a congressman has at his fingertips. He can ignore and lie to us and who is to know he is doing it? We are nobodies, and Fitzpatrick makes that point behaving as though we are not entitled to know when he is having town halls.”
Fitzpatrick said BrownGold’s arguments have no merit as she has spoken at several of his events.
“She’s engaged me more than most constituents,” he said.
Both parties guilty
Fitzpatrick is hardly the only politician unwilling to listen to the cries of the opposition. President Barack Obama frequents Leno and Letterman to connect with Americans through pop culture and softball questions rather than face the national press corps.
Republican opponents of Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, D-13, have criticized her for a lack of town hall events and debates during campaign season.
The problem runs nationwide, according to The New York Times, which reported that “Though Republicans in recent years have harnessed the political power of these open mic, face-the-music sessions, people from both parties say they are noticing a decline in the number of meetings. They also say they are seeing congressional offices go to greater lengths to conceal when and where the meetings take place.”
Terry Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall College political scientist, is not surprised by politicians maintaining their distance from potential verbal clashes. “So the tendency is to avoid any groups that appear hostile. Yeah, well, welcome to politics.”
Fitzpatrick is likely wary of planned disruptions at his meeting from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted him among 17 House members, according to an internal email CQ Roll Call obtained.
But if anyone tried to turn an event into “Animal House,” the audience would likely turn on the agitator and yield the floor to the representative. If a majority, however, are in favor of a verbal beat-down, perhaps a legislator should rethink his or her policies.
Fitzpatrick said he is not ducking any of his constituents, and has “one of most aggressive schedules of any elected official in the region.”
He said some meetings are designed strictly for one particular town “so I can listen to what people in that particular town have to say.”
Mary Avino of Churchville said she waited eight months for a meeting with Fitzpatrick. He didn’t call her until the day her critical letter to the Bucks County Courier Times appeared. “His office has repeatedly ignored me and made excuses,” she wrote, adding, “we need a representative in Congress who will actually listen to and respect his constituents.”
Avino, who started Bucks Against Gun Violence, said she felt better after what she described as “an extremely effective meeting” with Fitzpatrick.
While saying “I feel very happy with his cooperation,” she said she left him with a bit of advice. “You’re getting a reputation that if you don’t agree with Mike Fitzpatrick he’s not going to listen to you. That’s not a good reputation for a congressman to have.”