An empty metal chair stood in for the junior senator from North Carolina Tuesday night.
The absence of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., didn’t stop Democratic-leaning groups from organizing a town hall meeting in Charlotte Tuesday night, with attendees posing questions and providing their own answers using some of the senator’s past statements or reported comments as they stood in front of the empty chair.
The gathering of about 300 people inside the city’s Free Range Brewery on North Davidson Street was the latest in a national drive by President Donald Trump’s opponents to protest his agenda. They want to put pressure on the Republican-controlled Congress during its week-long “district work period” to stand up to the new president.
Members of Indivisible Charlotte and Indivisible Uptown Charlotte – offshoots of a national group created by former Democratic congressional staffers – said they organized the Tillis-less town hall after the senator rebuffed their requests to appear at town hall meetings in the state.
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Several attendees accused Tillis of enabling Trump in efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and push for the confirmation of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
“He’s a fellow traveler and supporter of Trump,” said Howard Hamilton, 68, a retired health care worker from Charlotte. “I don’t think you’re going to shift the momentum with just one event. This is just one of several.”
Elaine Corvidale, a 45-year-old romance novelist from Charlotte, echoed Hamilton’s sentiment, calling Tillis “a rubber stamp for Trump.” Tillis, in an Observer opinion piece published before Trump’s inauguration last month, vowed to work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and warned that his party shouldn’t view November’s election results – which gave the GOP control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate – as a mandate.
Tillis was touring the U.S.-Mexican border Tuesday with a congressional delegation that included Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate majority whip. The group took a helicopter and boat tour of the border and visited the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, a statement from Tillis’ office said.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is traveling overseas on congressional business during the recess, his office said.
Even if he had been in North Carolina Tuesday, Tillis believes he’s better able to reach large numbers of constituents via telephone town halls and Facebook live events, said Daniel Keylin, the senator’s spokesman.
Tillis isn’t the only lawmaker who feels that way. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., is scheduled to host a telephone town hall Thursday night and sent out 113,631 email invites to constituents to call in.
“A telephone town hall is inclusive and allows residents of Mecklenburg, Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland, Robeson, Cumberland, and Bladen counties to participate without driving long distances, hiring a babysitter, or getting off work early,” Pittenger said in a statement.
In letters rejecting offers to personally attend town halls, Tillis recently wrote that “in person town halls generally require a commitment several weeks in advance – a commitment my office is not prepared to make given the full schedule of the Senate and the duties attendant to service there.”
“Finally, as of late, it has become apparent that some individuals who are not really interested in meaningful dialogue attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles,” he added in one letter.
Still, several congressional lawmakers are sticking to the traditional town hall format during this recess. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., took questions from a sometimes testy audience during a 3 ½-hour town hall in conjunction with Indivisible in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Saturday.
Scott Huffman, founder of Indivisible Charlotte, called Tillis’ rationale for not conducting town halls a bad excuse and accused the senator and other congressional lawmakers who aren’t doing them of ducking the voting public.
Trump and some Republican Party officials doubt that the anger vented at recent town halls across the country is real. They’ve dismissed the tense encounters as “Astroturf” – artificial outrage manufactured by the Democratic Party and aligned groups rather than organic voter anger.
Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC that backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid last year, is launching a digital ad campaign to let people know their Republican representative’s public schedule.
“Democrats are tapping a well-organized network of progressive groups to try and derail Republican efforts to engage with members of their community,” said Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Indivisible’s online guide to resisting Trump’s agenda gives instructions for opponents of the president on how to conduct themselves at town hall meetings.
“Head into the venue a bit early to grab seats at the front half of the room, but do not all sit together,” the group’s online guide says. “Sit by yourself or in groups of two, and spread out throughout the room. This will help reinforce the impression of broad consensus.”
The guide adds that, “If you’ve asked a hostile question, a staffer will often try to limit your ability to follow up by taking the microphone back immediately after you finish speaking…They can’t do that if you keep a firm hold on the mic.”
Some Republican lawmakers contend that the protesters are being bankrolled by wealthy liberal donors to disrupt town hall meetings, a claim that groups like Huffman’s deny.
Organizers of Tuesday night’s meeting poked fun at the pay-for-protest accusations by handing out mock invoices seeking $350.00 for the hours protesters have spent demonstrating weekly outside of Tillis’ office and for the senator not attending town halls during the recess.
“I’m not getting paid,” Hamilton said. “But if I am getting paid, I just want my money and a W-2 form.”