During trips to their districts this week, Republican congressmen representing the Austin area will not be holding town halls, even though many constituents have been asking for them.
That hasn’t stopped groups from holding town halls of their own – even if the member of Congress they want to talk to isn’t there.
In Dripping Springs on Sunday night, activists held one of these town halls. They say they invited Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, but his office declined.
A crowd of people sat on the patio of Flores Mexican Restaurant, eating and carefully writing questions on note cards. They waited for a turn at a microphone facing a podium with American flags draped behind it.
Most of it was pretty standard for a town hall.
Lisa Molina, an Austin resident living in Williams’ district, spoke of her 20-year-old son's battle with leukemia at ages 3, 11 and 13. She said she was concerned about lifetime caps on health insurance, which was a problem before the Affordable Care Act was passed. Now that Republicans control Congress, many lawmakers, including Williams, are looking to repeal that law.
“My son’s treatment cost reached a million dollars by the time he was 14 years old,” Molina said. “Without the protection of the ACA, it was possible that he could have been denied for the coverage. So, my question is: Do you support keeping these current ACA protections intact?”
But this is where the town hall got weird. Molina wasn’t talking to Williams; she was talking to a cardboard cutout of him. So instead of getting an answer, she heard the sound of crickets throughout the patio.
Those crickets followed questions about Williams' support or lack of support for investigations into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, as well as questions about global warming, and the future of Social Security and Medicare.
Folks who came to the event, though, knew that was the deal going in.
Organizer Erin Zwiener told the crowd to act as if Williams were there. She said they planned on sending a recording of the town hall to his office.
“Show Congressman Williams that he should have been here today,” Zweiner said. “Show him that we are constituents that do not understand the choices he is making in Washington. Be firm, speak your truths, ask tough questions, but also be gracious. Let’s get him to show up next recess.”
According to one of the organizers, almost 250 people signed in for the event. And there were similar ones elsewhere.
Organizers with Indivisible Austin, a group created after Trump’s inauguration, are holding town halls in other congressional districts in the Austin area – with or without the Congressmember.
Vince Zito, a spokesperson for Rep. Williams' office, said in a statement that "Williams believes in listening to his district and in doing so spends as much time as possible meeting with constituents and groups throughout his district."
"Congressman Williams will always humbly listen to the thoughts and concerns of all of his constituents - he always has and always will," Zito wrote in a statement to KUT. "And although he appreciates the invitation, he declines to attend the club meeting of the Dripping Springs Democratic Action and its associated groups. I think if you closely examine the statements and missions of these groups, it's clear that civil, substantive discourse on issues is not their true agenda. Congressman Williams looks forward to continuing to fight for the issues that his constituents sent him to Washington to fight for, including: real tax reform, strengthening our military and rolling back the job killing Obama trademarks such as Obamacare and Dodd-Frank legislation."
This post was updated to include a statement from Rep. Williams' office.