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Where is Trey Hollingsworth?

Carpetbagging Congressman cancels first-ever town hall, angering constituents and emboldening opponents

Christopher Rex
Feb 24, 2018 · 14 min read
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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They descended on Scottsburg under the cover of early-morning darkness, from all over Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District. They came from places like Mitchell and Bedford, Bloomington, Memphis, Floyds Knobbs, and more. They were teachers and construction workers, mental health counselors and high school students; retired postal workers and stay-at-home moms. One was a bundled-up third grader in a pink Colts stocking cap. They were there to speak face-to-face, finally, with their elusive representative, Congressman Trey Hollingsworth.

It was a small group, not more than 25 in number, and they were carrying signs with slogans like Protect Working Families; Stop Re-Writing the Tax Code in SECRET; and, most simply, #SHOWINGUP. They were exceedingly polite and civil in their actions, huddled together along South Lake Road North, trying desperately to keep warm as cars and trucks whizzed past in the dark, but they were angry, too, oh yes, and they had some questions they wanted the man representing them in Congress to answer.

Chuck Sebastian, a local barber, wanted to know who Hollingsworth was really working for, the people of the Ninth District, or the large donors that the tax bill would benefit the most; Barbara Burton, a cancer survivor, wondered if Hollingsworth and the GOP would be coming for her Medicare next; High school senior Dylan Baker had the $1.5 trillion deficit in mind when he asked why he and his generation were being asked to pay, tomorrow, for rich people’s tax cuts today; Roger Pedigo, a construction worker, wanted to know why we weren’t investing in infrastructure — the roads and bridges he helps build — while his wife, Jennifer, wondered how her two daughters were expected to thrive, financially, with crippling student loan debt.

There was one singular question, however, that they all demanded an answer to:

Where was Trey Hollingsworth?

Looking back, it seems like it was always meant to be the Town Hall That Never Happened. For starters, the only place it was publicized was on the Scott County Chamber of Commerce website, which is weird, considering Representative Hollingsworth has a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a Congressional website; One would think, if he was having his first town hall since being elected, he’d want to let the people of his district know. They had, after all, been calling for him to hold one since the day he stepped foot in office.

Instead, however, @RepTrey was busy taking the people’s pulse on something far more important, apparently, to the residents of Indiana’s Ninth District:

Nobody is quite sure how word got out on social media, if it was a left-leaning leaker at the Chamber who let it slip, or if it was the work of a diligent deep dive by a concerned constituent (attempts to track down the Ninth District’s Deep Throat were unsuccessful), but when it did, just days before the event, the two main challengers in the Democratic primary to unseat Hollinsworth in the November general, certainly took notice:

Dan Canon, a civil rights lawyer and activist, seized upon the opportunity to bring attention to the event on the Congressman’s behalf:

While labor attorney and workers’ rights advocate, Liz Watson, took it a step further, issuing a Will Ferrell-like Who’s coming with me!?! call to arms:

As if the tight-lipped non-announcement of Hollingworth’s first ever town hall wasn’t odd enough, there was more miscommunication, as Canon pointed out, in terms of when the event would actually go down.

The Scott County Chamber of Commerce website listed the start time on its EVENTS page as 8:00 AM.

But when the link was clicked on, to RSVP for the event, the time listed on the Eventbrite invite indicated the Tax Reform Town Hall would really begin at the even-more-convenient time of 7:15am.

And about that invite. What was billed as a “town hall” — generally regarded as an open-to-the-public type question-and-answer session — was limited, apparently, to the first 100 people who stumbled upon scottchamber.org.

It’s also worth noting that the host of the event, the group to whom the RSVPs were directed, the organization that would have a man at the table directing the discussion, wasn’t a member of Hollingsworth’s staff, or even someone at the Chamber of Commerce, but rather a representative of Americans for Prosperity (AFP, as they disguise it), the right-wing “political advocacy group” headed by lovable billionaire do-gooders, David and Charles Koch.

Late on Sunday night, just 10 hours (or was it 9 hours and 15 minutes?) prior to the town hall, word came out that the event had been cancelled — Hollingsworth wouldn’t be showing up at any time down in Scottsburg. The official reason, written in a statement by Hollingsworth’s head of communications, Katie Webster, cited safety concerns:

“Our office received information about planned violence for the Scott County Chamber event,” the statement read. “The threat was relayed to Capitol Police, and a decision was made not to participate for the safety and security of all attendees, staff, and Representative Hollingsworth. This information was communicated to the event organizers last night as soon as a decision was made. As emotions run high, we are not able to take security threats lightly.”

Here’s the thing, though: The Watson campaign says they called Capitol Police that morning to assess the threat level, because they were still planning on heading down there with supporters, and they were told, in no uncertain terms, that Capitol Police had no clue what they were talking about. They even called the Scott County Sheriff, they said, and asked if he’d heard anything about a threat. He had not. When they asked if they could have a police car on the premise, for their safety, the answer amounted to one big what the hell for? (local police were on-site, however, let it be noted).

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that this is coming from one of Hollingsworth’s hopeful opponents in the November general. But, if what’s being implied is true, and neither Capitol Police nor the local authorities had any clue about the “planned violence,” it raises one pretty accusatory question:

Did Trey Hollingsworth’s staff conjure a threat in order to avoid the optics of the Congressman being confronted by two dozen constituents as he walked into a Koch Brothers-sponsored Chamber of Commerce speaking engagement?

(Unfortunately, both Capitol Police and the Scott County Sheriff’s Office, refused to respond for this story, despite double-digit requests over multiple days, including one awkward in-person attempt at the Scott County jail. However, when presented with the version laid out by the Watson people — the one in which nobody had any clue about the threat of planned violence — and asked to refute its accuracy prior to publication, neither took the opportunity to deny any part of it.

It probably goes without saying, but Trey Hollingsworth’s spokesman didn’t bother to respond, either, when asked for comment and/or verifiable proof that a threat actually occurred).

Sitting in the warmth of Goat Milk Stuff after the rally, as supporters browsed the merchandise and chatted up the owners, Liz Watson talked about why it was so important that the Congressman hears what the Barbara Burton’s and Dylan Baker’s of the district have to say. It matters what they think, she said, and as their representative, he should consult with a wide variety of constituents, not just donors and Chamber of Commerce people, before taking such impactful votes.

When asked about the gathering outside, and whether it could have possibly been construed as a threat to the Congressman, Watson shot a raised-eyebrow look over her black-framed glasses.

Protestors pose menacingly outside Trey Hollingsworth’s cancelled town hall.

“Did we look hostile to you?” she asked, rhetorically.

“We can disagree with Trey Hollingsworth without being disagreeable,” she elaborated. “We need to be able to have public discourse that’s civil, where we discuss the issues and we make our voices heard. But we don’t have to do that in a way that’s acrimonious. We are certainly going to stand up for ourselves and fight, and of course we’re angry with what’s happening, but that’s why we want to speak with Representative Hollingsworth,” Watson gave a half-shrug, and held out her hands. “We ought to be able to do that, right?”

On a recent Sunday afternoon a group of about 35 Ninth District residents, most from Clark County, met up for the first time at the Charlestown Pizza Company in Charlestown, Ind., a small, struggling community on the Ohio River. They were there to talk politics, to network — many were first-time candidates running for local office — and to eat the free pizza.

Conversations weren’t dominated by talk of gun control, or immigration, or Russian meddling, or Trump’s porn star payoffs — President Trump wasn’t mentioned a single time, in fact. It was just a group of concerned citizens, of various backgrounds from all over the county, eating greasy slices of pizza and sipping sodas in wood-backed booths, talking about the problems they were facing locally, and what could be done to fix them.

Like the brown water coming out of their pipes, for instance. And the growing homeless population, and the related public-housing crisis that’s exacerbating it. A lot of people were concerned about the lack of transparency in their local city government, and everyone nodded in agreement when the school-voucher program was brought up, and how it was devastating public schools in rural areas.

There was one issue, however, that stood out as more pressing than the others, more immediate and direct in terms of human impact, and it was an issue Trey Hollingsworth was well aware of.

“Private property rights,” said Tina Barnes, unequivocally, when asked what issue most concerned her. Barnes was born and raised in Charlestown, and currently lives in the impoverished Pleasant Ridge neighborhood with her adult handicapped daughter, and two grandkids. For the past four years, Barnes and her neighbors have been fighting tooth-and-nail to save their homes from their own mayor, who‘s attempting to take their land, house-by-house, through eminent domain, and sell it off to a wealthy private developer who’s planning an exclusive community.

Out of the 350 low-income families who lived in Pleasant Ridge in 2014, 160 have been forced out, their homes boarded up and condemned for demolition.

The mayor has referred to Pleasant Ridge as a “low-rent” neighborhood that attracts “people who are not contributing to society.”

“And when you really look at the people [the mayor] ran out of town,” Barnes said, flanked on both sides by family and neighbors, “they were mothers with children. We lost soooo many children out of Pleasant Ridge, and it just destroys my heart to think about it. They were the future for our Charlestown, and he took that away from us.”

Barnes spoke with a soft, slow, southern Indiana drawl, but her deep-set eyes were fierce. She’s been waging war since Day One, quite literally doing everything in her power to try and prevent her and her neighbors’ homes from being taken; she’s the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice on behalf of the neighborhood (they sought and won a temporary injunction back in December); she testified before a Congressional sub-committee in April, pleaded with them to support the Private Property Rights Protection Act, a bill that would put a stop to the mayor’s illegal maneuverings; she even ran for, and won, a seat on the Charlestown City Council.

But it’s not enough, she said. The injunction is only temporary; the bill is still sitting in committee; and as the lone Democrat on the Council, she doesn’t exactly wield a whole lot of power.

“I sure would like for more Congressman to be elected that know about private property rights, and would review the old laws,” she said, herself an unfortunate expert on the subject. “Because they’re the ones that can make the changes that we desperately need.”

When asked if she’d spoken with her personal representative, Trey Hollingsworth, about the issue, she nodded.

“We had a private meeting with him at his office in Washington, right after the hearing,” she said, sounding a little awed by the experience. “He didn’t spend a lot of time with us, of course, because, you know, he’s busy, buuut…” she drew the word out, thinking of the nicest way to put it. “He listened,” she said, before adding, with a laugh, “that’s about all I can say.”

So no action was taken?

“Oh, no,” she said, still tickled. “No follow-up, nothing. And I can tell you that a couple of representatives that I spoke in front of at the hearing, they actually followed up with me, and they weren’t even ones from our state! But yet, mine didn’t.” That got her laughing again, as if the whole thing were some cosmic joke she’d long ago figured out she was the punch-line to.

It was mentioned that in his other life, as a private citizen, Hollingsworth was himself a wealthy developer, and she just laughed even harder.

“Ex-actly,” she managed to get out.

The truly funny thing, in an ironic sort of way, is that Tina Barnes was one of the lucky ones — at least she’d gotten to talk to the guy. Aaron Fairbanks, a burly, bearded laborer from Jeffersonville, is a big advocate for a nationwide Housing First program to help the homeless, a program, he says, that will cost the government less over the long haul than it currently spends in the present to combat the problem.

It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, providing housing to people who need it, and it’s ideas like that, said Fairbanks, that Trey Hollingsworth’s missing out on by refusing to hold town halls. “When you don’t get to come down here and hear these kinds of problems,” he said with a shake of his head, “you can’t represent.”

Elysia Fisher, a single-mom who is running for Charlestown Board of Trustees, agreed: “Our representative now, who has that right, and that obligation [to represent], won’t even answer to us,” she said, before breaking into a big, loud, laugh; a common reaction, among these folks, when asked to assess Hollingsworth’s job performance. “Dude’s setting the bar pretty low for someone to surpass him.”

Trey Hollingworth’s luxury condominium complex in Jeffersonville. He lives in the penthouse.

That’s what riles his constituents up the most. It isn’t the fact that Hollingsworth purchased a luxury condo in Indiana’s Ninth District back in 2015, despite having no previous connections to the area, specifically because it was an open Congressional seat in a deep-red district; or that he then proceeded to buy that seat with gobs of his own cash, along with serious advertising dollars from dark money mega-donors like the Koch Brothers. It wasn’t even the fact that Hollingsworth comes from such opulent generational wealth that his father was once featured in Mega Yacht News, detailing his two-decades-long dream of chartering a yacht for a 29-day Caribbean cruise.

None of that would have mattered to the people gathered at the Charlestown Pizza Company, not one bit, if Trey Hollingsworth were only doing his job. If he would just stop pretending to listen, and actually hear them, for once.

A little over a month after Trey Hollingsworth voted YES on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that’s projected to save the Koch Brothers between $1 billion and $1.4 billion a year in combined income taxes, while temporarily providing middle-class Americans an extra $18 a week on average, the residents of Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District finally got their Tax Reform Town Hall.

It was a Thursday evening, rainy and cold, with an ice storm on the way; the type of night that makes a person want to curl up on the couch with a bottle of wine and some Netflix and forget about the problems swirling outside. And yet, people showed up, double the amount that had been down in Scottsburg.

They had come to the Seymour Community Center, despite the weather, looking to vent, for someone to listen, and to get some answers about what the hell had just gone down (the event was again organized by Liz Watson, who’d been inspired to go on tour, so to speak, and was holding a town hall in all 13 counties leading up to the May 8 primary; She’d brought along tax expert David Gammage, a former advisor to the Obama Administration and current tax law professor at Indiana University, to get into the weeds).

The people were still civil and polite, to be sure, but there was more anger this time around, less, DO YOU HEAR US? and more WE’RE COMING FOR YOU! As Joe Bradley of Brownstown put it, after comparing Hollingsworth to Mr. Potter, the rich, greedy developer who bankrupts Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life”: “Every time you vote for a Democrat, an angel gets its wings.”

It won’t be the only town hall hosted at the Seymour Community Center over the next couple of weeks, either. Dan Canon, equally inspired by Hollingsworth’s lack of public representation, has embarked on a district tour of his own, where he’ll also be hosting 13 in-person town halls, plus two digital gatherings, in a 16-day span.

New Albany residents packed the house to practice participating in the Democratic process.

“I love it,” he said, immediately following a two-hour, standing-room-only open-forum this past weekend at Clean Hope Socks in New Albany. “This is politicking, right, I mean this is the real stuff. We get so involved in fundraising and looking at polling data, and all this other stuff, but getting in and having face-to-face contact with the people you want to serve, I mean, what’s better than that? It’s not cocktail hour, it’s not small-talk, it’s not chit-chat, it’s not ‘give me a bunch of money’ — it’s talking about stuff that’s really important to people. It’s good for the soul.”

Canon made air quotes around “town hall” when asked about Hollingsworth’s cancelled speaking engagement in Scottsburg, calling it a “farce,” and adding that it’s “incredibly insulting” that the Congressman refuses to hold a true town hall for all of his constituents:

“You can’t cut yourself off from messaging that is unpleasant to you if you’re in a room full of actual, breathing human beings,” he said, explaining how important it is to hold town halls, not just for the constituents, but for representatives as well. “You can say something to somebody on Facebook, or Twitter, or by email or whatever. But it’s not the same as this face-to-face contact, where we’re sitting in a room together, and I have to acknowledge their humanity,” he paused for a second, ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper goatee. “I can’t explain it very well in an academic way, there’s just something very magical about that. I think that’s the essence of the type of politics we should be doing from here on out.”

For his part, Trey Hollingsworth was also out speaking to people of the Ninth District this past week. In an email sent to supporters, he briefly detailed his tour of the Otterbein Franklin SeniorLife Community, where he discussed facility renovations, as well as his stop at Pridgeon and Clay in Franklin, to talk hiring challenges. He was also in Greenwood, at the Southland Community Church, were they broke ground to “further redevelop their building into a bigger, better functioning church.”

Interesting enough, he also noted that Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson stopped by his office in Washington. That’s the same Connie Lawson who’s overseen the purge of over a million Hoosiers from the voter rolls since 2012, and who’s currently facing two separate lawsuits accusing her of violating federal election law. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss, appropriately enough, “how we can do more to ensure Hoosier voices are heard through their elected officials.”

There was no mention of a town hall.

Christopher Rex

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Christopher Rex is a freelance journalist based out of Indianapolis, IN. Follow: @IowaCaucus2020

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