CARLISLE, Pa. - Gabrielle Trinkle has plenty she’d like to say to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.
If only she could find him.
Trinkle, 28, a hairstylist and mom of two, says she’s tried to meet with the Pennsylvania Republican over her concerns about the fate of Planned Parenthood in the Senate Republican healthcare bill. But so far, she’s been unsuccessful.
“I haven’t been able to get through to him,” said Trinkle, who belongs to a local branch of the protest group “Tuesdays with Toomey,” which has been picketing Toomey’s Washington and state offices since earlier this year.
So Trinkle was in the one place where she knew her views would get a sympathetic airing, a rally/town hall here sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who’s emerged as an implacable opponent of the healthcare bill.
With liberals seething with anger at the Trump administration, conservatives frustrated over stalled pushes for healthcare and tax reform, and the rest of us trying to get through the day without unfriending everyone we know on Facebook, these are interesting times (to say the least) for American politics.
Americans want to talk about the issues confronting the country. And they want to talk to their elected officials about those issues.
But actually getting in touch with them?
That can be another matter entirely. And the experience of three Pennsylvania lawmakers, two Republicans and one Democrat, hailing from a traditional swing state that went for President Donald Trump in 2016, is instructive.
First up, Toomey.
While he’s held one-on-one meetings and small group audiences, Toomey has proven elusive prey for Pennsylvanians hoping he’ll hold a large-scale town meeting like some of his Congressional colleagues.
The closest Toomey has come so far was a July 7 televised town hall sponsored by a local ABC-TV affiliate in Harrisburg. The questions, while prodding, were hardly confrontational. And that seemed to suit Toomey just fine.
“We can have our differences of opinion, but hopefully we can work them out in a civil fashion,” Toomey said during the broadcast. “There are some people who don’t want to have a constructive conversation. What I’m interested in is hearing from constituents.”
Constituents who wanted Toomey to hear them - loud and clear - picketed the television station before and after the event. Six people, including at least one person in a wheelchair, were taken into custody by police.
“I want to tell him not to support this [healthcare] bill,” Chanita Carson, 25, of Harrisburg, said when she was asked what she would say to Toomey if she had the chance. “It will harm thousands of Pennsylvanians.”
Karen McCraw, who works for a local advocacy group called The Family Health Council, juxtaposes Toomey’s cautious and measured approach to voter engagement with that of another local Republican, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry.
Perry’s Fourth Congressional District includes the deep red suburbs around Harrisburg, as well as a swath of the bright blue Capital City itself.
In March, Perry faced down an angry crowd that filled a high school auditorium in suburban York County, who, at times shouted him down, countering his answers with accusations of their own.
Disappointing some, Perry called off a scheduled town meeting last month in the wake of a shooting at a Republican practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was grievously wounded in that incident.
Still, “I was pleased with Scott Perry,” said McCraw, who disagrees with Perry’s stand on the healthcare bill, but went to the meeting. “I felt like a participant. It was democracy at its best.”
As for Toomey?
“I think he needs to engage with constituents,” she said, acknowledging that Toomey might feel “uncomfortable” in such a setting. But, she added, “that’s his job.”
Then there’s Casey. A two-term incumbent who’s up for re-election in 2018, Casey has spent much of the last seven years fighting off the perception that he’s a mere low-profile backbencher and Obama loyalist.
The son of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., Casey discovered his inner angry guy with Trump’s election. He campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And he’s spent 2017 trolling the Republican president on Twitter.
Like many national Democrats, Casey has also been holding a series of town halls and rallies to build both grassroots support against the White House’s agenda.
The fact that they may also result in a Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2018 and Casey’s own re-election is more than mere happenstance.
Good policy, after all, often results in good politics. But more than that, there was a sense among voters here that they were genuinely being heard.
“I’m hoping our senators and congressmen listen to us,” Trinkle said.
And at a time when more Americans are hoping for a real connection with their politics and their politicians, being listened to is never a bad thing.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.