This is a guest post by Judd Dunham 

[UPDATED at 4:42 pm with video]

A group of a dozen or so concerned citizens got word yesterday that Rob Portman would be attending an event at Columbus State about opioid addiction. Most of us have spent the past six weeks trying however we knew how to get an audience with the senator or with any Republican congressmen in our areas to express our deep concerns with the direction the country has taken. since the election. This has included multiple in person visits to Senator Portman’s office as well as visits to congressmen at their offices or in public. To date none of us have succeeded in getting anything more than generalized statements or assurances that “our voices were being heard” by staffers. We believe this is not enough, that the seriousness of the times and the principles of liberal democracy demand more.

So our goal was simple: ask the Senator to agree to a constituent event that is open to the public, so that your constituents – many of whom voted for you even if they are not Republicans – can have a chance to have their voices heard, where they know that their representative is listening.

In order to make this ask, we went to the Columbus State Conference Center in order to meet with Portman on his way in. We placed people at the front doors, at the elevators and outside the room where the opioid addiction event was taking place. While waiting we got many leery glances from staffers and security and overheard comments such as “they’re a bunch of protesters, they’re going to come in here and raise hell” etc. When the Senator was on his way in his staff must have realized that his choice was either to meet with us or to get caught on tape creeping by, avoiding his own constituents. The Senator and his staff made the admirable decision to meet with us directly, so we were shown into a room next door to the event.

Portman visits with constituents who staked out his undisclosed Columbus event.

The Senator came in and sat with us for about 3 minutes, during which he generally assured us that he cared about our views and wanted to hear from us.

Video of the first 3 minute encounter with Portman, where he refused to commit to a town hall:

Portman offered to meet with us after his remarks, so we stuck around. True to his word he came in to meet with us again after about an hour, and he stayed for a total of 30 minutes.

Video of the full 30-minute encounter with Senator Portman:

We opened with a statement of our appreciation that he would at least agree to meet with us in person and that we wanted to use the time to talk first about substantive issues and later come back to the topic of having a broader meeting in public. We covered the following topics: 1) Russian interference in the election and connections to the Trump administration in general 2) Whether the Senator supported Trump releasing his tax returns 3) The senators views on whether he agreed that the press was “the enemy of the American people” 4) The urgent need for the Senator to meet with his constituents at in person, opt-in events that are open to the public.

On Russia, Portman mostly agreed that the issue is of grave concern and he repeated his support for an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee. When pressed on whether he felt there should be a select committee or an eventual special prosecutor (i.e. that Sessions would recuse himself from any eventual criminal investigations) he demurred. When pressed on whether he felt the investigation should be thorough and transparent and should go wherever the evidence takes it, he strongly agreed – “absolutely”. He seemed genuine on this point, noting that the special challenge would be how to communicate the results to the American people without divulging sources or classified material, but that “at the end of the day the report has to be something all Americans can understand.” He also spoke about a dis-information bill that he’s gotten through congress. Honestly I think here he is in the right place and I did get some reassurance that if the time comes we can hopefully count on him to make a stand here.

On tax returns – Portman essentially dodged the question – he said several times that it would be up to Trump to do that. Very non-committal.

Regarding the issue of the press being the enemy of the American people – he fairly clearly stated that he disagreed with that. “I totally agree”. He spent some time congratulating himself for his openness to the media, all his press events, how he talks to the press in Washington all the time etc. He noted that he tries to get the press to pay attention to policy. We pressed that our point here is not that we think he doesn’t talk to the press enough – but that we are concerned about our democracy, and we are looking to our elected officials, especially Republicans, to publicly stand against the kinds of radical statements coming out of the administration, to stand for the principles of liberal democracy which we believe are currently under attack from multiple angles by the administration.

On our main point, the need to have town-hall style meetings open to the public – he walked around this issue in every way imaginable, and in the end he refused to even consider considering one. He repeatedly tried to characterize himself and his office as very open, very communicative with the public but his examples were limited to private events at factories or the like or “tele-town halls” in which his office calls random people all over the state. He spoke about how what he has been doing in this regard over the past six years has worked well and felt that there was no reason to change that. He said that he wanted the most constructive interaction with his constituents, which he seemed to think would not happen at town halls. He came back to alluding to that point several times, saying that in principle he agreed with us but that somehow the bad behavior of the left was keeping them from doing these events. We made the point that the answer to this isn’t to stop meeting publicly with constituents, but to fix the town halls so that the could be productive. “The answer is not to throw out town halls, the answer is to get them right. And we are here to help you with that.” We offered to be part of a group that would work with the Senator and his staff to organize an event that would be like the meeting we had today, to ensure that members of the public who came out would conduct themselves in a way that would lead to constructive dialogue. One of our group asked again, would you at least consider it – he repeatedly refused to do so, but nevertheless, she persisted. “It’s possible to have a town hall where people listen to each other. Ohio and you can set an example for the rest of the country that this kind of dialogue is constructive. Be the one who shows everyone how to do it, and we will be the ones who can sit with you. We can make some progress on this.” Senator: “I agree, but that’s not what’s happening around the country right now.”

Bottom line: while we deeply appreciate the time the Senator took with us today, we will not be satisfied until people who cannot randomly take a Friday morning off work or who don’t have the guts to stake out elevators and confront staffers can have the same opportunity that we had.
 

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