Sneaking Out the Back Door in the Illinois 6th

This morning I went to a neighboring town to try to hear the Congressman from my district speak. Originally, the Palatine Republicans were hosting the meeting and, as I understand, it was open to everyone. But after a reporter showed up at another meeting this week (which made the Congressman cancel his appearance) they closed the meeting. At least I think that’s what happened. Or maybe because they thought the “demand was too high.” (Seems to me a bigger venue might have been a better alternative, but oh well.) But the Congressman was still scheduled and I don’t often hear about meetings like this so I figured I’d still give it a try.

You see, I’ve been trying to get a chance to hear my Congressman speak, and ask him a few questions (like why he wants to allow guns in the hands of the mentally ill and abolish Congressional Ethics oversight) just to make sure I understand. I pretty much disagree with him on most issues where I can actually tell where he stands, and I’ve not heard very much that’s positive about him but he keeps getting elected and he’s the only Congressman I’ve got so I thought it would be better to make my own opinion. He doesn’t get out much — I heard from organizers about many invitations he’s turned down.

So I decided to see for myself.

I called his office a few weeks back to find out his public schedule so I could go hear him. They told me there wasn’t really a public schedule because he found it more effective to meet with smaller groups in private and that I should go to the website and request a meeting.

So I did.

I heard nothing back in response to my first request so I sent another. I listed the names of several neighbors who had said if I was requesting a meeting they would like to go too. We aren’t an organized group. We just live in the same town and are represented by the same Congressman and we all would like the chance to speak with him.

This time, I got an email response and they said he wouldn’t meet with us, that he is too busy. They kindly offered that instead of the 25 registered voters in his district who were going to go with me to talk to him I could bring up to eight people for a meeting with his local staff. So I’m looking forward to that meeting in a couple of weeks.

I offered to send the names and concerns of the people who are going to join me. No response. To be clear, I appreciate the offer from the staff. I’m actually looking forward to meeting them. They are the lifeline of communication between the Congressman and the rest of us so while it’s not what I wanted, it’s a start.

Because our Congressman seems to not show up (where was he at the town 4th of July parade this year that happened right after the Orlando shooting?), cancel (last week because of one reporter) or disappear out the back door.

And so this morning, off I went to Palatine to check it out for myself.

I’m not registered with a party. I am a voter in the Illinois 6th District. I figured I might as well ask them nicely if I could come in.

When I arrived in Palatine, I saw the flags and pink hats and the signs in the parking lot. Hundreds of people, chants of “let us in” and “more than three” (the Republicans had said there would probably be “about three” protesters) and car horns honking as supporters drove by. I found a parking spot and walked over to see if I could get in to hear my Congressman. I had a few minutes before the scheduled speaking time so I wandered through the crowd.

So I talked to a few of the cops and a few of the protestors. The driveways to the parking lot were blocked off. The police were asking people to stay off the pavement and on the grass. The crowds rimmed the parking lot. No one was going in or out of the door where the meeting was happening. That was odd, I thought.

At the end of the walk to where the door was, there was a strong man with excellent posture looking a little intimidating. He seemed friendly enough so I asked him a question. He did nothing to suggest that I couldn’t go down there and I’m still not sure if he was in law enforcement, or private security or a if he was just standing there. I walked down the sidewalk and pulled open the door.

Someone was speaking. I stood quietly by the door at the back of the room. A few people looked at me but no one said anything. There were many rows of folding chairs set up, and a committeeman was speaking. He referred to the crowd outside as “snowflakes.” That got a little giggle but no loud roars. Then a women went up to talk about the ”spring baskets” they are putting together and said that they were going to call the “Easter baskets — not spring baskets anymore, right” to another murmur of what I assume was approval from the audience.

There were a few other people between the registration desk and the door. Once the check-in lady finished with them she came over and asked me if I was a member. “A member of what?” I asked. The Palatine Republican organization. “I don’t live in Palatine,” I said. “I just want to hear the Congressman.” That led to some confusion. Only members could be in the room. So they told me I could join, if I filled out a form and paid $25. I fumbled around and got out some cash but told them again I didn’t live in Palatine. The nice lady suggested that I consider joining the organization in my own town. I told her I thought that was a good idea and could I still stay.

By this time the Congressman was speaking. I clapped when he was introduced. There was still some confusion. They handed me a sign in sheet and then a registration form. I still had my cash in my hand and asked them if I would get a receipt. They got busy with other people coming in the door. So I just stood there.

All was going well. I was quietly standing, glad I could finally hear my Congressman even if I couldn’t ask a question — after all, it was members only. He started reading from a letter he had received from a constituent. It was about the ACA. And how it was bad. I think he missed the signs out front that ranged from “Repeal and Replace the ACA” to one that hit far more close to home: “Repeal and Replace Roskam.”

I was pleased to be able to see this exercise in democracy. It was also an exercise in Trump Nation, where all you do is invite people who agree with you and tell them you “hear” them and that you know they were “ignored for 8 years by Obama” which seems to always get the crowd to boo. It was educational to hear how he talked to the people he knew were on his side and I was pleased to see that most of the tenor from the audience was quite reasonable. It wasn’t at all like a Trump rally. People were listening. I was glad to be there and glad I had ventured in.

Then came a lady with blond hair and glasses who had announced the Easter baskets and seemed to think it was a huge victory to replace the too-PC “spring” with the word, Easter (“right?!”). She came back, looked at the other lady, pointed at me and said, “who is she?”

She got right in my face and told me she didn’t recognize me so I must not be a member and if I wasn’t a member I couldn’t stay. She told me she wasn’t stupid (I’m not sure why she said that since all I said was I was there because I wanted to hear the Congressman speak). I told her I had considered joining, that I had $25 but that I didn’t live in Palatine. Once again, momentary confusion. Then back came the snowflake-identifier committeeman, asked someone else who I was (why couldn’t they just ask me?) who got a little too close and told me to leave if I wasn’t a member.

We were shushed then as I tried to explain that I just wanted to hear the Congressman and I didn’t live in Palatine, so I just said, “it would be nice if you had someone outside the door who explained the rules” and then I suggested if they really wanted new members they should have someone different than the blond lady with the glasses acting as greeter.

At this point the policeman came up to the committeeman and said that if only members were welcome he had to be clear, it had to be consistently enforced and if then people didn’t leave he would arrest them. Excellent advice from the police — be clear, be consistent and then follow up with thoughtful action.

This is when I decided my “I’m not from Palatine” strategy had probably run its course. And so I left.

I went out to the crowd and found a few people who seemed to have a calm demeanor. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t recognize anyone .I suggested to them that they try to go in. These were all strangers.

You see, every time that door opened, the sound from the crowds came in. If they wanted to be heard, that seemed like a pretty good strategy.

A few people said, “they won’t let us in.”

I said, “did you try?”

“No,” they said, “they won’t let us in.”

And that, my fellow Americans, is that.

The problem is that we are not assuming good intent. We are not assuming we have anything in common with people on the other side. We are assuming “they won’t let us in.” Don’t get me wrong. 90% of the time this is probably exactly accurate. But if we do not try, if we do not ask, if we do not speak up constructively before we start a fight, if we do not allow people who want to listen the chance to do so, we will never, ever get this country back together.

Everything is changing.

I need to change. I need to march and write and call and talk to people whose paths I don’t cross every day. I need to walk into meetings where I am not welcome. I need to ignore the people who call me names like “snowflake” or put labels on me that I don’t want. I need to try to talk to people whose very methods and statements I can’t abide. I need to try again even when they try to kick me out.

My Congressman needs to change. For 12 years he hasn’t had to work that hard. But in 2018 he will not only be challenged from the Democrats. He’ll probably be challenged by someone who is even more conservative (if that’s possible) than he is. I personally hope he is challenged by a more moderate Republican. If he wants to have a chance to focus on the issues he cares about, he has to find a way to get out of his echo chamber and listen. He doesn’t have to agree but it is inexcusable to be unwilling to listen.

And it’s not just that. For what it’s worth, even before we get gerry-mandered into some other place thanks to the long-term strategy and multi-million dollar investment of the Koch brothers and others, I predict that the Illinois 6th is changing too. It’s changing before our eyes.

I went to the Women’s March two weeks ago. The train was so full of pink-hatted marchers who’d boarded in the 6th district that they made the train express and couldn’t even stop at the next stop, where the platform was also filled, pink hats stretching from one end to the other. The train had come from Wheaton, the heart of the red of the Illinois 6th. Red with pink hats, these days.

Last weekend, I went with a friend to hold up an “all welcome” sign at the international terminal at O’Hare. People were standing up for what they believed in and they were finding common ground with strangers. Like the weekend before, it was peaceful. And surprisingly positive.

Today, I went to Palatine.

There were hundreds of people, asking (today) to be heard. It was not theoretical. It was specific.

Today was different. Today had a tension, and an underlying negativity. They were unhappy. They feel unheard. They were peaceful. But they were angry and they are tired of being rebuffed when they want their elected representative to listen to them.

If this election was a “surprise” because the voices of the unheard finally triumphed, I suspect that if those voices who are now in charge refuse to listen, refuse to try to unify and refuse to even consider alternative opinions, in 2018, the new unheard will rise up with a deafening roar.

So, my advice to all of the Congressmen who before this felt like they held safe seats? Take the meetings. Listen to the requests.

It won’t take much to turn their request into demands and their demands into voter turnout.

This was out the front door.

Photo credit: Jane Melvin

No longer can you sneak out the back door and think that no one notices.

Photo credit: Voter in the Illinois 6th — I’m waiting to hear if she wants me to use her name.

Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen. Or follow this publication, connect with us on Twitter, and join us on Facebook.

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