But during this summer’s month-long congressional recess, he won’t be holding any in person.
Baird said his decision to scrub such constituent gatherings was partly prompted by an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment from right-wing opponents of Democratic health care reform efforts who have disrupted town hall meetings in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“It’s a lynch-mob mentality out there,” Baird said. “There is an ugliness to it.”
Baird is not the only one to have noticed an increasingly hostile political environment, although he is the only Washington state congressman to cancel events.
At a recent town hall meeting in Lakewood, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, said there was some shouting, heckling and personal attacks from a crowd of about 250 that applauded the “anti-government” rhetoric.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, said a recent town hall meeting about veterans’ health issues was interrupted by people denouncing the Obama administration’s and congressional Democrats’ health care reform.
“It’s pretty flabbergasting to me that people have the guts to show up and interfere with questions about veterans’ health care,” said Larsen, whose district includes Bellingham.
Democrats say the town hall protests have been orchestrated by Republicans and the health care industry.
“This is not a spontaneous outburst,” Larsen said. “No one is fooled this is a grass-roots movement.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner has promised Democrats will be in for a long, hot summer. The National Republican Congressional Committee is sending out e-mails entitled “Recess Roastings: Washington Democrats Feel the Heat at Home.”
Conservative Web sites and blogs urge people to attend town halls. A posting on one site, which has been widely distributed, offers detailed tips on how to “rock the boat” and keep lawmakers on the defensive.
FreedomWorks, chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is offering “Health Care Action Kits. A group called Conservatives’ for Patients’ Rights has a list of every upcoming congressional town hall in the nation on its Web site.
The Web site of the Washington state Tea Party Patriots movement has sample questions people can ask and a “Notice of Termination” they can hand their senators and representatives. The Olympia Tea Party’s Web site warns of government-sponsored health care “unless we the people rise up and stop them.”
Tea Party Patriots describes itself as a nonpartisan, volunteer, grass-roots organization dedicated to fiscal responsibility, limited government and free markets.
Among those attending Smith’s town hall meeting in Lakewood was Ken Morse, one of the organizers of the Olympia Tea Party.
“Democracy can be messy and raucous,” Morse said. “That was the most emotionally charged meeting I have seen.”
Morse makes no apologies for the crowd’s actions, adding that even though Smith seemed to handle the situation well and was a thoughtful representative, he had dismissed his group’s concerns “out of hand.”
As for whether the town hall protests are being organized nationally, Morse said “we are not taking marching orders from anyone. If there is a mastermind, it is me. It is a logical thing to turn up at town halls.”
Shelley Taylor, a conservative activist who lives near Sequim, agreed. “It’s democracy in action,” she said. “This isn’t an organized thing. People are just scared.”
Lynn Carpenter, a conservative activist from Bellingham, said the protests just reflect the “raw emotions” of those who feel shut out from the political debate and who believe their representatives are out of touch.
“I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest to be rude or discourteous to one’s representative,” Carpenter said. But she said Larsen, her representative “won’t talk to us and won’t listen to us.”
Though Baird has no town hall meetings scheduled in August, he does plan a tele-town hall, a type of event that in the past has attracted 4,000 or so people. Participants ask “constructive but tough questions” of the congressman, who appears via remote link.
Baird is no stranger to town hall protests, having faced left-wing opposition to his support for the surge of additional troops into Iraq during the Bush administration. But he said protests have reached a “dangerous” new level.
Smith and Larsen are both going forward with their town halls during the recess.
“It comes with the job,” Smith said. “They aren’t protesters. They are constituents speaking their minds.”
Smith said even if the protests are organized, “what’s wrong with that?”
Larsen said people have a right to show up and speak their minds. Supporters of a government-run health care system, also known as single-payer, have also been vocal at his town hall meetings.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, doesn’t do many town halls and doesn’t have any currently scheduled. He will be taking part in various Rotary and Chamber of Commerce-type events .
The congressman doesn’t like what’s happened at town halls elsewhere and worries it could become a “model for future legislative activism, threatening to impede legitimate communication between individuals and their representatives in Congress.”
Washington state’s two senators, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, don’t do many town hall meetings but hold various health care forums. Murray also plans to hold 11 tele-town halls during the recess.
“Health care is a very personal issued,” said Alex Glass, a Murray spokeswoman. “But there is also a lot of misinformation out there. Yes, there is vocal group of opponents out there and she respects their views, but her goal is to answer the questions of families and businesses for whom the status quo isn’t working.”