Concerned about her safety at a big town hall meeting, Rep. Mia Love tries small group chats

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah meets with constituents during "open office hours" at her West Jordan office, Tuesday August 1, 2017. Love met with constituents in groups no larger than ten people, her alternative to holding a town hall. At left is Bridgette Despain.

West Jordan • For nearly three hours Tuesday, Rep. Mia Love sat in a stuffy room and responded to a stream of earnest and unfiltered thoughts from the people she represents in Congress.

She heard from a dairy farmer worried about finding immigrant hands to look after her sheep. She met a local toy shop owner burdened by inspection fees from foreign imports. She spoke to a teacher facing chronic pain and a slew of side effects from the prescriptions she takes to treat it.

Mostly, she answered questions about President Donald Trump.

While that may sound like a town hall, it wasn’t in the traditional sense. There was no auditorium and no microphone. There was just Love, 4th District residents and “open office hours” in a small conference room.

Throughout the afternoon, groups of no more than 10 individuals at a time — though averaging just four — took a seat at the oval table and addressed the congresswoman. After about 15 minutes, that group would leave and a new crowd would come in.

“It’s set up in a way that we actually have dialogue,” Love said.

While she’s met with residents one-on-one and answered questions in online broadcasts, the congresswoman has not held a traditional, in-person town hall this year. That is in part a reaction to then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s hostile event in February, with angry attendees shouting over him with calls to “do your job.” Utah Republican Party leaders warn about potential “violence and intimidation” and encouraged politicians to skip such events.  Some, including Love, have lingering anxiety over safety when facing such a large audience.

When asked if security concerns had prompted Love to explore new ways of reaching out to the public, she offered a quick response: “Well, absolutely.”

“I have personally witnessed threats to me, to my home,” she said. In recent months, the congresswoman has filed police reports on people driving past her house and taking photos of her three children, as well as posting her address on social media. She also mentioned the June shooting at a congressional baseball practice that hospitalized House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others.

The House recently passed an amendment offered by Love to allow members to use their office budget for security when they are back in their districts. 

“There’s a lot of incivility these days,” she said. Two West Jordan police officers stood in the lobby of her Utah office Tuesday, screening individuals as they came in.

Still, many in the small meetings pleaded with Love to hold town halls. “What is the benefit?” she asked at one point.

“I think it allows for people who may not want to sit down face-to-face,” said Psarah Johnson of Salt Lake City.

“We understand your reluctance,” added Emilie Turner, a leader with the CD4 Coalition, a peaceful activist group formed in the wake of Trump’s election that has met with Love two times previously to ask for an in-person forum.

Love said her alternative layout Tuesday “is actually a town hall.There are many ways to do a town hall.” She said the redefined meetings allow for productive conversation that helps her bring ideas back to Washington.

“I can’t raise Utah’s voice if I can’t hear over the clutter,” she said.

In total, she met with seven groups, adding up to 28 individuals, answering questions from nearly every participant. Her office sent 220,000 emails and 50,000 mailers district-wide to advertise the event.

But for all the effort to move away from the shouting matches that have characterized town halls, Love’s meetings didn’t entirely steer clear of heated exchanges.

At two times, Love was asked whether she’d support starting impeachment proceedings were the president to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and potential connections to Trump’s campaign.

“I don’t like answering hypotheticals,” she responded when Matthew Tracy of South Jordan posed the question.

“It’s not a hypothetical,” he shouted over her.

“You’ve got to let me answer the question,” she said, noting there are several reasons she might not be aware of what could result in Mueller losing his job. “You’re not letting me finish. I’m not going to make a blanket statement about something that hasn’t happened.”

At the end of their group session, though, Tracy took a selfie with Love and said he “didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”

“You weren’t at all,” she said with a smile, shaking the hands of each person as they left.

She faced similar pushback on other questions about the president. Bridgette Despain, a registered Republican from South Jordan who is “disgusted” by the president, asked: “Are you confident standing up to your party and the president when you disagree?”

“I believe that I have actually,” Love said, noting she hasn’t approved of the president’s Twitter habit or his “comments about women.” She mentioned several times throughout the meetings that she didn’t vote for Trump and has criticized federal overreach during both his term and that of former President Barack Obama.

Of the other topics she addressed, Love gave some details about what she’d want to see in a replacement bill for the Affordable Care Act, which so far has eluded the Republican Congress. She would’ve preferred a less invasive approach that would have allowed children to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26 and would have blocked insurers from denying people because of pre-existing conditions.

“All of these things I felt like we should’ve fixed line-by-line, subject-by-subject and had as much input on it as possible,” she said. “But instead, it was a whole overhaul, which ended up making it a little bit better for some and a little bit worse for others.”

Republicans weren’t ready with a plan, she added, because of the constant churn of lawmakers coming and going during election cycles that creates a “new Congress and new committees” every few years. She promised to take the stories she heard Tuesday, including from a woman who’d had 13 surgeries to fix her jaw and another whose son faces a debilitating illness, into consideration as new health care legislation is drafted.