A cardboard cutout of Sen. Pat Toomey stood in place of the actual politician at a makeshift town hall in Station Square Tuesday.
Frustrated with Toomey’s decision to not hold a town hall over congressional recess, about 250 Pittsburghers held their own town hall as the latest installment of Tuesdays with Toomey, a recurring protest outside the Republican senator’s offices across the state.
Past Tuesday with Toomey events have focused on topics such as protecting First Amendment rights, asking Toomey to keep legislation that supports the LGBTQ+ community since he has supported banning same sex marriage in the past and creating fair economic growth in Pennsylvania. But this week’s Station Square protest called for a town hall rather than commenting on his legislative measures.
Representatives typically hold town hall-style meetings to hear input from their constituents in a casual, easily accessible setting. But Toomey — who was re-elected in this year’s November election — hasn’t held an in-person town hall since 2013. He held his 48th telephone town hall this past Thursday — which he announced on Facebook less than two hours before it began.
Toomey took 10 questions during the 45-minute call — leaving several protesters, including Jennifer McDowell, unsatisfied with the answers about holding an in-person town hall.
“We decided it might be a nice idea to show Senator Toomey how easy it is to hold a town hall. Look at all these friendly, patriotic people here who just want to be heard,” McDowell, who is a Tuesdays with Toomey organizer, said.
The Tuesday with Toomey protests have focused on the perceived inaccessibility of the senator. When his constituents tried to call him, they got a busy signal or were directed to a full voicemail box. When they tried to email him, they were met with an impersonal response.
The week after Presidents Day is a typical time for lawmakers to hold town halls because of the congressional recess. While this year has seen a slight increase in lawmakers meeting with their constituents to address their questions, according to a RollCall report, only 67 of the 537 senators, house members and delegates have or plan on having a town hall this week.
The protesters questioned the cardboard cutout of the senator about the President’s comments about the press, workers rights, the Affordable Care Act and legislation Toomey has opposed. When constituents called his office, either during the teleconference or over the last month, to ask these questions and give their opinions, many said they couldn’t get through.
“How many of you got a chance to ask a question of Pat Toomey during the call?” McDowell asked the crowd, who booed in response. “He’s not talking to us.”
Janna Zuroski of Squirrel Hill said she felt ignored by the senator when she couldn’t get through to his office. She also said she was frustrated Toomey seemed to be voting against the wishes of many Pennsylvanians.
“He’s been extremely difficult to get in touch with,” Zuroski said. “That’s not a representative.”
Toomey made a Facebook post on Feb. 6 defending his vote for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — despite opposition from people contacting his office — by saying that many were not his constituents.
“My D.C. and PA offices are receiving a high volume of calls and emails from people outside of our state weighing in on President Trump’s cabinet nominees,” Toomey said in the post.
Liz Klie, an organizer with Planned Parenthood, addressed the crowd gathered in front of Toomey’s office at The Landmarks Building as cars passed by, some honking in approval.
“Like many of you, we are caught wondering ‘Where is Toomey?’” she said as the crowd cheered in agreement. “We deserve answers in PA.”
Along with calling for a town hall, this week’s protest focused on protecting First Amendment rights. McDowell read the text of the amendment to the crowd, who cheered when she read about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Though the speakers at the protest and questions at the town hall centered on free speech and the right to assemble, many in attendance had additional concerns about Toomey and Trump’s similar plans, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Toomey, who pledged after his reelection not to be a “rubber stamp” for Trump, has voted for all of Trump’s cabinet nominations so far, including DeVos.
Zuroski also said she is concerned about health care but that she is most worried about positions the new administration has taken on the environment.
Trump’s recently confirmed pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has long been an advocate for reduced environmental regulations, which he says have destroyed jobs. Additionally, Trump’s 2012 Tweet about climate change, calling it a Chinese invention to hurt the U.S. economy, has been sharply criticized by climate scientists.
“I don’t have a sign because I have too many things I’d like to protest against,” she said.