“Was there a formal appointment scheduled?” asked the congressional aide who opened the door at congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s Miami field office Tuesday.
With a dozen co-conspirators looking on, a man sitting by the door held up a piece of paper listing the dates of every email and phone call he’d made to the office since December. “We tried!” he said. “This is just how much one of us tried.”
There was no formal organization leading the charge: just pairs of people who share a church or a workplace, and who got together online to push for a public meeting over the future of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The common denominator is the fact that they are residents of Congressional District 27.
“She could have avoided this,” said Derek Merleaux of Representative Ros-Lehtinen. “This seems very confrontational, but this is not how we started. We started with a bunch of very polite people calling her office.”
Boisterous town hall meetings have sent Republican congresspeople looking for cover in their home districts during the recess—with some representatives opting not to hold public meetings at all. But as lawmakers around the country are now learning, that strategy can backfire too, opening them up to a entirely different criticism from their constituents.
“I care about Obamacare, because my kids use it, but my main concern right now is access to our representatives,” said Kathy Hersh, who came with a fellow parishioner from her Quaker meeting.
— Bianca Premo (@BiancaPremo) February 21, 2017
As far as Obamacare goes, Ros-Lehtinen’s district is home to more people who got coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges last year than anywhere else in the country.
“People in this district will die if ACA is not replaced with something equivalent or better,” said Kirsten Wood, educator and South Miami resident. “I’m not a meet-with-your-congresspeople kind of political animal, so this is new, and frankly difficult for me, and it’s incredibly disheartening to me to realize how hard it is to get access to your representative.”
After a short wait, the voters went in, four at a time, to talk with Ros-Lehtinen’s Chief of staff. When she came back out, librarian Paige Morgan said she was glad to have been able to meet with someone, but that her concerns about access went nowhere. “I felt as though we were stonewalled, and just given excuses, and told repeatedly that she’s not running away, she’s not trying to hide.”
Morgan says she thinks she’ll have to make time to come back for the foreseeable future.
Ros-Lehtinen’s office declined a request to interview the congresswoman.
In a statement, Ros Lehtinen said she values constituent feedback but can’t accommodate every request for a meeting. Her office did not respond to questions about how long constituents should have to wait to have their phone calls returned.