Buck up, Republicans. Your constituents want to have a word with you

Republican Rep. Earl Leroy “Buddy” Carter of Georgia faced questions - and questioners - this week at a town hall event in Savannah.
Republican Rep. Earl Leroy “Buddy” Carter of Georgia faced questions - and questioners - this week at a town hall event in Savannah. AP

Let me tell you about the time I walked into a room full of conservatives.

It happens pretty regularly, actually, but most recently was last year, in the heart of the 2016 election. I’d been invited to speak to a lunch gathering of one of Charlotte’s many fine service organizations. The room was mostly men, mostly older, and definitely tilted to the right.

Over lunch, a few attendees quietly warned me that the crowd might not be very friendly. I smiled and thanked them. Then I gave a short speech about the Observer’s opinion pages, and I opened the floor for questions.

It wasn’t any great act of courage on my part. It’s what you do if you’re a member of the editorial board at your city’s newspaper.

So buck up, N.C. members of Congress. Your constituents want to have a word with you.

So far, they’re not having much luck. While GOP lawmakers across the country are braving hostile town halls during this 10-day Congressional recess, North Carolina’s Republicans are avoiding face time with the people they represent. One of those lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, explained to constituents that it’s hard to find facilities and schedule these meetings in advance. He also worried that some people might try to make a scene.

He’s not alone in wanting a safe space. U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada said Wednesday he would do a town hall if there was “no applauding and no booing.”

If all of that seems a bit weak-kneed, well, yes. Hosting a town hall isn’t just about some lofty democratic ideal. It’s about doing your job, including the unpleasant parts.

Are things intense out there for Republicans? Yes, and confronting unhappy constituents is probably more unpleasant than what many of us face at work. Or maybe not. (My inbox says hello.) But those constituents have real fears about losing insurance without Obamacare, or real concerns about what a Trump presidency might bring. They’re upset. It shows.

Still, it’s probably not so much the anger that makes Republicans uncomfortable. It’s the cameras. Finger-pointing constituents don’t make for good optics.

That’s why some Republicans, including the president, have tried to explain away the town halls as something sinister – “professional protesters” planted by liberal advocacy groups. The reality: People are being told where meetings will be, and they’re mad enough to show up.

It’s the same thing that happened at the beginning of this decade with tea party town halls and rallies. Complaining about those crowds – or worse, ducking out the back door to avoid them – only draws attention to the softness of your spine.

A better approach: Square your shoulders and face the unhappiness. That’s what members of Congress across the country have done, including Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. The pair hosted a joint town hall last week in Mount Pleasant, where they heard from passionate constituents and faced pointed questions. They even got booed.

But they also were applauded, grudgingly by some, for showing up.

By the way, things went fine at my lunch event last year. Most everyone was polite – as they usually are. The sharpest question I got wasn’t even about politics. It was about the loss of baseball box scores in the sports section.

Which is about how it goes at events like that. It’s not often ugly, but not always pleasant. What it is, most of all, is my job. Buck up, lawmakers, and do yours.