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A crowd gathers during a Welcome Home for Recess Rally across from the Joel Solomon Federal Building Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 in Miller Park. Recess Coalition for Chattanooga is calling for politicians to meet with their constituents.

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Citizens hold town halls — minus their congressmen

Tennessee's congressional representatives decided against holding town hall meetings during their first recess of Congress this week, but that didn't deter a group of citizens who hosted their own event at Chattanooga's Public Library Friday afternoon.

Close to 200 people attended the people's town hall to organize for future events and hear from volunteer speakers, most of whom were upset with their representatives' apparent willingness to sail along with President Donald Trump's agenda.

Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander were invited to the event, as were Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais, but they declined to participate. In fact, the only sign of them was onstage, where four cardboard cutouts had been been placed with the representatives' faces plastered over the heads and garish ties slung around the necks.

In lieu of their actual representatives, the crowd harangued these stand-ins, saying the men were shirking their responsibilty to represent all of their constituents.

"Do you see them here?" yelled Rachel Campbell to the crowd.

"No!" they shouted back.

"Do you feel that they are listening?" Campbell asked. "No!"

Several attendees pointed out that it should have been easy for at least one of the men, Fleischmann, to attend, since he was in Chattanooga all day and had nothing scheduled during the event.

Earlier Friday, the 3rd District congressman waved through a closed car window at sign-waving people hollering "Come to our town hall!" as he left Barger Academy, one of three schools he visited to emphasize the importance of computer science education. On Tuesday, Fleischmann also attended the Kiwanis Club in Ooltewah, according to his Twitter feed.

The event was paused momentarily only five minutes into the proceedings when a fire alarm was pulled in the library.

While the siren blared and people stared around suspiciously, an organizer got on the microphone and encouraged everyone to remain seated, saying it was believed that someone opposed to the meeting was trying to derail the event. The crowd responded with cheers and applause and when the siren was shut off, and the event began again in earnest, with the next speaker railing against Trump's stance on immigration.

Friday's town hall capped five days of Recess Week events planned by progressives opposed to a number of new undertakings by the Trump administration and the GOP, including repealing the Affordable Care Act, a tightening of the immigration policy, a lack of action on gun violence, and rollbacks of LGBTQ protections and environmental regulations.

None of the congressional representatives in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, all Republicans, held town hall meetings during the congressional break. Several told the Times Free Press they were busy with other meetings, and Sen. Bob Corker was out of the country.

An ad hoc group calling itself the Recess Coalition for Chattanooga organized daily "Town Talks" in Miller Park on multiple topics, which ended with groups of people walking to the offices of Corker and Alexander to meet with staff members.

About a dozen people gathered in the park Friday, where they posted photos of the absent politicians, small flags waving in front of the pictures, and plastered a wall with "Reject Pruitt" posters in reference to the newly confirmed EPA secretary, who has close ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Recess Coalition organizer Kelly Elliott said the week's events were aimed more at education than protest, drawing attention to "universal issues we all care about."

The rally opened with the group singing Woody Guthrie's populist anthem "This Land is Your Land," and though most of the singers had to check the printed lyrics on the verses, they were strong on the chorus: "This land was made for you and me."

At one point the group turned toward the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building, where Alexander has his Chattanooga office, and shouted several times in unison, "Can you hear me now?"

A dozen yards away, a homeless man on a bench by the park's fountain yelled back, "Can you hear ME now?" The man, who wouldn't give his name, said he felt the group was disrespecting President Donald Trump, who he supported.

Other groups held events drawing attention to Republicans' plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

A panel discussion at the Bessie Smith Hall on Thursday drew about 40 people who listened to and asked questions of a panel comprised of three local physicians, two residents who depend on the ACA and a representative of the Tennessee Justice Center, which advocates for health care for middle- and low-income residents.

Katie Alexander with the Tennessee Justice Center said congressional Republicans have plans for "radically restructuring" not only the ACA but Medicaid and Medicare, two bedrocks of health care.

Dr. Danielle Mitchell, a local family practice physician, said Alexander "sabotaged our access to health care year after year" by opposing the ACA and should be held accountable. So should Tennessee state lawmakers who killed Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to expand health insurance coverage to more of the state's poorest citizens, she said.

Elected representatives, she said, should represent the "collective voice of Tennesseans rather than who's meeting with our representatives and senators with a business interest in mind."

Over in the 4th Congressional District, constituents invited Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican physician from South Pittsburg and ardent Obamacare opponent, to participate in the tele-town hall they organized after he declined to hold one during the break.

DesJarlais has been feeling heat from constituents over proposals to repeal and replace the ACA. He told the Cleveland Daily Banner in an interview last week that Republicans intend to pass a better, more affordable plan that can be better tailored to individual needs than Obamacare.

But he didn't make that case in the tele-town hall. A series of callers asked questions about coverage, about costs, about protection for people with pre-existing conditions.

After each question, the moderator asked whether DesJarlais was on the line.

And each time, listeners heard only the chirping of crickets.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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