by Brooke Newman, history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a resident of Virginia’s 7th District.
Dave Brat, Virginia’s 7th district congressional representative, has a serious problem. Since Trump took office and the GOP-led Congress initiated steps to gut the Affordable Care Act, undermine women’s reproductive rights, and approve a Secretary of Education openly hostile to America’s public schools, Brat’s constituents—and women in particular—have vocalized mounting discontent with their elected representative. They’ve flooded Brat’s Washington D.C. and local offices with daily phone calls and emails; tracked his movements and attempted to confront him in person; and organized multiple Facebook groups to pressure the Congressman to hold a public town hall meeting.
Brat, however, has thus far managed to dodge his peeved constituents. As the Congressman put it during a private fundraising event attended by a mostly male, conservative audience last month, and secretly recorded by an uninvited female constituent: “Since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go. They come up—‘when is your next town hall?’ And believe me, it’s not to give positive input.” “We’re getting hammered,” Brat emphasizes.
How should Congressional Republicans respond to the groundswell of female activism at the local level? Brat, whose biblical views have long shaped his politics, pleads with supporters to get churches involved. “Help us organize those lists of churches – the good guys who are supportive, and help us message, and help us write newspaper articles.” President Trump, Brat stresses, is “most loyal to . . . evangelicals.” Indeed, both the new President and his congressional foot soldiers are calling for the politicization of the pulpit to push the administration’s agenda.
The video footage of Brat’s speech, recorded surreptitiously by a resident of the 7th district, was posted to a Facebook page called “7th District Town Hall Meeting.” The members of this group (myself included) share the same goal: to engage in meaningful dialogue with their elected congressional representative. Their rallying cry: “#AskBrat When is the next Town Hall meeting?”
Though he claims to value feedback, Brat’s actions suggest that he prefers to avoid engaging in face-to-face dialogue with constituents. That way lies danger. With no evidence to back up his assertion, Brat told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he need not heed the concerns of the protesters who infiltrated his private event because they were nothing more than “paid activists.” But, as I myself can attest, that is not the case. The members of the 7th District Town Hall Meeting group live in Brat’s district and want answers from their representative. Brat nonetheless continues to protest that “everybody is busy, busy, busy” and unable to meet with constituents while “doing the first 100 days.” Although, Brat is apparently scheduled to attend a town hall meeting with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) in Gold Canyon, Arizona, on February 23rd as his “special guest.”
Yet there are recent signs that the seemingly unassailable wall Brat has erected between himself and his more critical constituents is starting to crumble. In response to media scrutiny for his remarks about the women in his district getting “in his grill,” Brat held an impromptu Live Town Hall on Facebook on January 31st, inviting constituents from the 7th district to participate. “I am looking forward to hearing your questions and concerns and giving you a quick update on what is happening in Washington,” Brat announced on his Facebook page several hours before the event.
Though over 1,000 internet-savvy men and women participated in the Facebook event, public engagement was necessarily limited due to its last-minute, ad hoc nature. “Congressman Dave Brat, why are you so reluctant to meet your constituents face to face?” asked one Virginian on the Congressman’s Facebook page.
Facebook is not an appropriate venue to address the concerns facing Virginians today. You need to hold a town hall meeting, announced far enough in advance to allow maximum attendance. You are denying voters a voice by sneaking in a Facebook Live event, which gives you ample opportunity to ignore comments or questions that might trouble you while still letting you claim that you are listening to us. You are not listening. And if you continue not listening, we will not fail to remember.
A Facebook Town Hall, inherently constrained and one-sided, is a far cry from the open dialogue his constituents seek. While Brat answered a handful of questions and repeated talking points during the 38-minute event, which generated over 7,000 comments, many of the residents of his district remain dissatisfied and eager for in-person engagement, as this YouTube parody, “Dave Brat, Short Form: A Rational Economist-Teacher-Seminarian’s Guide to Dave Brat’s Facebook Townhall”—put together by one of his female constituents—makes plain.
So, the central question posed by the women in Brat’s “grill” is as pressing now as it has been for the past several weeks: Rep. Brat, when is the next Town Hall meeting? Your constituents are waiting and will not be deterred.