FRONT ROYAL — If you’re a constituent of longtime Rep. Bob Goodlatte and you want to communicate with him, here are your options:
You can attend one of the regularly scheduled “open-door meetings” in his district, where a Goodlatte staffer will listen to your concerns and pledge to relay them, but is not authorized to respond.
Or you can participate in a “tele-town hall,” by signing up online to join a conference call, along with thousands of your neighbors. With no advance warning, one night the phone will ring and connect you to a call, often already in progress. A handful of people on the line are chosen to ask the congressman a question.
And finally, there is Facebook Live, which Goodlatte (R-Va.) has used twice this year to answer questions he selected from among those submitted by members of the public.
Amid raucous protests and town hall meetings staged by voters who are angered by the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, Goodlatte has joined some other lawmakers from his party in finding less contentious ways to interact with the people he represents.
Through a spokeswoman, Goodlatte declined an interview for this story. But he said in a statement that he meets with people who request appointments and corresponds with constituents who call or email his office.
During a March 1 tele-town hall, he explained why he prefers those events to large, in-person gatherings.
The phone-in events “provide for an opportunity for a very civil discourse, as opposed to what you’ve seen around the country where people turn town meetings into mob scenes and have cardboard cutouts of elected officials and all kinds of other things that kind of demean the process and take away from the people who show up and really want to have a serious discussion about the problems facing the country,” Goodlatte said, according to a broadcast of the call that a resident posted on Facebook Live.
One week earlier, activists had staged a “People’s Town Hall” outside Roanoke with a cardboard cutout dubbed “Flat Bobby” as a stand-in for Goodlatte.
The congressman’s hands-off approach is frustrating to some of his constituents, particularly Democrats living in urban pockets of an otherwise deeply conservative district who faithfully attend some of the “open-door meetings” that Goodlatte staffers hold weekly, bi-weekly or monthly in 21 locations.
“It’s recess time, let’s see him,” Len Sherp, a 70-year-old retiree from Front Royal, said last week to Emily Wicht, a staffer who ran last week’s session at a public library near Sherp’s home.
“Do you know of anything on his schedule that is open to constituents?” Sherp asked.
Wicht was relentlessly cheery.
“No, sir, I’m not given his schedule, but everything publicly posted is on his website,” she said.
Besides the meetings, there were no public events listed on Goodlatte’s website. His spokeswoman said later that Goodlatte was sitting down at that moment with President Trump in the Oval Office to discuss immigration and other issues. The White House confirmed the meeting.
Goodlatte, now in his 13th term in Congress, previously held town halls in the district, but he doesn’t anymore. Asked why he stopped, a spokeswoman declined to comment.
The congressman has visited businesses and held private meetings over the past two weeks, during the spring recess, but has not made any broader public appearances.
Sherp and other critics said they expect more from their representative, the senior Republican in the Virginia delegation and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
“The people are angry,” said Sherp, an organic farmer who was wearing a “No Farms, No Food” cap and a “Chairman of the Gourd” T-shirt. “They’re angry over the direction that the country seems to be headed. They’re angry over the unwillingness of Congressman Goodlatte to come and meet with us.”
Seven of the 11 members of Congress from Virginia — Republicans Dave Brat, Thomas Garrett and Scott W. Taylor and Democrats Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Gerald E. Connolly, Don Beyer and A. Donald McEachin — have each held at least one in-person town hall meeting this year, in some cases enduring heckling from the crowds.
Those sticking to tele-town halls and Facebook Live events, in addition to Goodlatte, are Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R), a member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus who represents all of Southwest Virginia west of Roanoke; Rep. Rob Wittman (R), whose district runs from Prince William County to the suburbs outside Richmond; and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R), whose Northern Virginia district is a top target for Democrats next year.
Goodlatte’s district stretches 200 miles down the Shenandoah Valley to the Roanoke Valley and east to Lynchburg, the home of Liberty University. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 24 percentage points there. Goodlatte clobbered his Democratic challenger.
But the district is home to patches of liberal outrage, including a vocal contingent in Front Royal, about 70 miles west of Washington. Even if they can’t change his mind, they deserve to be heard by their representative, they say.
Instead, they have Wicht’s ear.
“Hey, Len!” she chirped, as Sherp walked into a small room in the library on April 12.
Sherp explained he couldn’t stay very long; he was due at noon at the gazebo in the center of town for his weekly “Vigil for Democracy” protest.
Wicht wrote on the whiteboard, “Welcome to Congressman Goodlatte open door meeting. We’re glad you’re here!!” That was followed by a smiley face.
She heard from John Cermak, 81, a retired electrical engineer, who said he hoped lawmakers could fix the Affordable Care Act through hard work — not over drinks at Mar-a-Lago.
“I have faith that Congressman Goodlatte has the character, if he hears from the people, to say, ‘OKAY, I really need to do something here,’” Cermak said.
Wicht turned to another voter at the table.
“Ms. Roush, what would you like me to —” she said, picking up her pen.
“I have a list,” said Kathleen Roush, a 64-year-old retired pediatric intensive-care nurse. Then she read from her phone:
Trump should help children in Flint, Mich., who were poisoned by lead-contaminated drinking water. He should reveal his sources of income and ties to Russia. He should preserve arts funding. His trips to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., cost taxpayers too much. Nepotism. Congress should not have changed the rules to ease confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.
“Also, I forgot to mention education,” Roush said. “I think that there’s a lot of waste in education, but just to cut education funds is unfair.”
Wicht wrote down every word and then looked up at another woman at the table.
“Meredith, what do you have today?” Wicht said.
Meredith Parnes, a 45-year-old housewife, complained about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and paused for a moment.
“And Sean Spicer,” she said with a sigh.
“Poor thing,” said Bob Harris, 63, a retired mail carrier.
“Somebody needs to take him to school,” Parnes said.
“You know the thing with him is . . . he is just not a wordsmith,” Harris said. “He can’t explain his way out of a paper bag.”
Then someone brought up the hasty planning of the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
“How inept can they be?” Harris said. Turning to Wicht, he said, “I don’t expect you to write that down.”
“I write everything down,” Wicht said.
Roush said she knows it’s not Goodlatte’s job to manage the children’s event, but she wished he could use his influence to change things for the better.
“It’s making America look foolish,” she said. “Anyway, I’m going to go. Have a happy Easter.”
She advised Wicht to be safe and wear sunscreen on her upcoming vacation.
“Have a great day, Ms. Roush,” Wicht said.
The remaining residents trickled out until Wicht was alone. She cleaned the whiteboard and gathered the sign-up sheet and notebook containing the morning’s work.
At exactly noon, she stood up and turned off the light.