Congressman finds political vitriol follows him home to Ohio
Monday, March 29, 2010
Rep. Steve Driehaus spent the first Sunday of his two-week break from Washington this way: He made breakfast for his wife and kids, took his son to his mother's house and bought the boy a bicycle while his wife and daughters went shopping.
Outside his Cincinnati home, a few angry protesters wouldn't allow him a full escape from the raw and vitriolic discussions that have embroiled the health-care debate for more than a year. They showed up to decry the freshman congressman's vote for the overhaul, standing in the chilling rain most of the afternoon Sunday holding signs that read: "Driehaus Voted to Destroy Our Children's Future" and "Remember in November."
Sunday's gathering, which never included more than three people at a time, was anchored by Jim Berns, a libertarian who has run for Driehaus's seat three times and for the state legislature 10 times. He wore a suit and waved at the congressman's neighbors -- a couple of whom greeted him with a middle finger, others with a thumbs-up.
Berns set up a display that included stuffed animals, and he draped a U.S. flag over a card table and pair of black boots to "symbolize the death of our future." "He won't listen," Berns said, as he faced Driehaus's home.
Said Driehaus, in a phone interview from his home on a dead-end street: "The other side has waged a campaign of misinformation and fear, and that's what people are reacting to. I understand people are going to criticize my decisions -- I'm an elected official -- but my wife, my kids, my neighbors are out of bounds."
Driehaus was one of the last Democrats to agree to vote for the bill, holding out until President Obama agreed to reaffirm that no federal money would be used to pay for abortions. Driehaus called the three protests that have been held outside his home "threatening" and "personal." His wife stopped letting their three children answer the home phone last week because of abusive calls and forbade them to walk down the street alone.
The west Cincinnati neighborhood is predominantly Republican, and Driehaus did not win his precinct when elected two years ago, said his brother-in-law Zeek Childers, who lives a half-mile down the road. Strong support from the more urban part of the congressional district gave him the edge. "It's bad down here," Childers said. "This area of Steve's district is much more conservative. The black community loves him. Labor loves him. The old white guys hate him. You got that out here."
The protesters were mostly conservative white men, and the idea to head to Driehaus's residence was pushed by James Schifrin, 71, the publisher of the Whistleblower, a gossipy conservative newsletter. Schifrin declined to give interviews, but for several days he prodded his readers to rally -- printing the congressman's home address (complete with a map, photo and suggestions for parking and takeout dining).
Ohio, always a bellwether state, has been home to a concentrated amount of the political anger that has seized parts of the country. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R), whose Ohio district neighbors the one Driehaus represents, said Driehaus "may be a dead man. He can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati." Boehner later said that his remark was political, not literal, and that voters should channel their anger into political organizing.
Jean Schmidt (R), whose district is also nearby, released a telephone recording in which a man uses profane language and calls Republicans racists.
The only documented violence in Cincinnati last week came Monday morning, when Caleb Faux, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, found that a rock had broken the double-paned front window of the party's office after the health-care vote the night before. "This is bullying, and the best way to deal with a bully is to stand up to them," said Faux, who posted a picture of the cracked window on the party's Web site.
The Sunday protest ended a tough two weeks for Driehaus, a vulnerable lawmaker who is being challenged by former congressman Steve Chabot (R). It began with an ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer, paid for by the Committee to Rethink Reform, that featured a photo of the congressman with his two daughters at a Labor Day picnic, and encouraged him to vote against any health-care bill that included federal funding for abortion. The group and the newspaper later retracted the ad.
His office received hundreds of calls last week -- about half thanking him for voting for the legislation, his spokesman said. The other half included death threats and other personal attacks, which were forwarded to the FBI.
Driehaus, who served in the state legislature for eight years before running for Congress, is well known locally. Some of those angriest about his support for reform are also mad about the threats being made against him.
"I'm unhappy about the health-care vote. The seniors are going to get screwed," said Janice Glatthaar, a member of St. William Roman Catholic Parish, which the Driehaus family attends. "I like him personally, but I disagree with everything he stands for politically."
Organizers of the local "tea party" movement agreed and steered its members away from the Sunday protest. "It is completely inappropriate to be at someone's home," said Justin Binik-Thomas, 27, a budget analyst who helped found the local group. "I don't have a beef with him and his family. This is not the movement."
On Monday, it will be Driehaus's turn to take the bully pulpit. He's planning a news conference at a community health center to tout the legislation. "I'll be out there talking about health care. The more people know about this bill, the more they like it," he said. "But my kids are out of school. I haven't been home in two weeks, and I'll be spending time with them, too."