Modest political protest at Miller Park kicks off 'Recess Week' in Chattanooga

Modest political protest at Miller Park kicks off 'Recess Week' in Chattanooga

Area activists want to put pressure on members of U.S. House and Senate during their beltway break

February 21st, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

A crowd gathers during a Welcome Home for Recess Rally across from the Joel Solomon Federal Building Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 in Miller Park. Recess Coalition for Chattanooga is calling for politicians to meet with their constituents.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified a speaker at the event as Rachel Hunter. Her last name is actually Campbell.

Gallery: No fun and games on congressional recess

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“We deserve to have our voices heard, even if not necessarily listened to.”
Rachel Campbell, demonstrator

POLL: Do you find your lawmakers to be accessible?

'Recess Week' events

Tuesday, 12:15-2 p.m.: Gun rights discussion, foreign terrorism discussion. (Miller Park)

Wednesday, 12:15-2 p.m.: LQBTQ rights discussion, immigration discussion. (Miller Park)

Thursday, 12:30-2 p.m.: Health care discussion. (Miller Park)

Thursday, 6:30-8 p.m.: Affordable Care Act forum. (Bessie Smith Cultural Center)

Friday, 12:15-1 p.m.: Environment discussion, net neutrality discussion. (Miller Park

Friday, 4-6 p.m.: Town hall for congressmen. (Chattanooga Public Library)

Are they holding town halls?

TENNESSEE
Sen. Lamar Alexander: No

Sen. Bob Corker: No

Rep. Scott DesJarlais: No

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann: No

GEORGIA
Rep. Tom Graves: No

Sen. Johnny Isakson: No

Sen. David Perdue: Did not respond

ALABAMA
Rep. Mo Brooks: No

Sen. Richard Shelby: Did not respond

Sen. Luther Strange: Did not respond

Rachel Campbell told those assembled at Miller Park on Monday evening that she tried to organize a meeting with her representatives.

She was alarmed by what she saw on the news about the new presidential administration — policies that didn't make sense to her and appointments she didn't like. She made some calls, sent emails. She got responses but thought they sounded boilerplate.

She wanted to see U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in person.

"We deserve to have our voices heard, even if not necessarily listened to," she said Monday at the gathering kicking off "Recess Week," a slew of events running while members of the U.S. House and Senate take a break from wheeling and dealing on the beltway. "If they cannot do this, they need to be replaced."

Events like this one are supposed to create more local political activism, especially among those who oppose President Donald Trump's policies and appointments.

Starting at 5 p.m. on a Monday, the gathering of about 100 people was a far cry from the Women's March on Jan. 21, which drew a crowd of about 3,000.

"Where is everybody?" a man in a red puffy vest wondered as the event began.

Kelley Elliott, who helped organize the events, hopes community members will put pressure on Congress through frequent phone calls, letters and visits to members' local offices. Every afternoon this week, the group will hold talks in Miller Park about gun control, LGBTQ rights, health care policy, the environment and net neutrality. Afterward, members of Corker's and Alexander's offices will meet with constituents.

The week will culminate at 4 p.m. Friday with a town hall in the Chattanooga Public Library. Organizers have invited Alexander, Corker, Fleischmann and Rep. Scott DesJarlais, knowing the politicians likely will not appear.

The Times Free Press polled 10 senators and representatives in the Tri-State area this week, asking if they will attend public town halls. Through spokesmen, seven responded. None plan to attend.

Corker is out of the country for work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fleischmann, Alexander, DesJarlais and Rep. Mo Brooks are busy with other meetings. According to Vice News, more than 200 Republican congressmen are skipping town halls during the recess.

Groups like the one in Chattanooga are sprouting up all over the country with guidance from Indivisible, an organization launched in November by former Democratic aides in Texas. They created a playbook for liberals who want to influence their Republican congressmen.

The plan calls for public town hall meetings this week because representatives and senators should be home. If the lawmakers don't accept the invitation, activists will hold the town halls anyway — putting a cardboard cutout of the politician at the front of the room and asking them questions as a piece of political performance art.

"It's hard to see if it's working because, yes, we lost the election," Elliott said Monday. "It seems desperate and hopeless right now to people who crave more moderate stances. But we will still advocate for them."

In Chattanooga, Elliott said, she wanted to organize a meeting out of fear that Republican congressmen will repeal the Affordable Care Act with a replacement that will leave more people without insurance.

Some liberals have compared their efforts since Trump's election to that of the tea party's responses to former President Barack Obama's time in office. Mark West, the president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, resists the comparison.

On Monday, he said the anti-Trump groups have dangerous roots, repeating arguments often found on alt-right websites about how liberal organizers are funded by Democratic billionaire George Soros. He believes Soros wants his activists to bully his policies into practice, destroying businesses and physically assaulting political opponents along the way.

"It's pretty pathetic for them to say they're akin to the tea party," he said. "We're dealing with people who don't respect the rule of law."

But local activists say they merely want to apply peaceful political pressure. Michael Morgan, who is coordinating an anti-Trump group in Dalton, Ga., said he and other progressives are just asking U.S. Rep. Tom Graves to answer tough questions.

Graves' spokesman said Monday that he will not attend a public town hall this week. But at some point next week, he will host a call-in question-and-answer session. Residents can join the virtual town hall by contacting Graves' office. His staff has not set an official date.

Morgan, whose 6-year-old son is autistic, opposed Betsy Devos' appointment as U.S. secretary of education. He fears she will cut public education funding, which in turn could lead to cuts to services for children with disabilities. He said he is pleased with speech and physical therapists who now work with his son at school.

"I don't want to see that go away," he said. "I really don't. I fight for that."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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