The Story (2012-2014)
This whole story is long, and probably boring to most.
If you lived in my district (now PA-1, formerly PA-8) during Representative Mike Fitzpatrick’s time, you’ll remember the town hall controversy.
I spent over two years asking Rep. Fitzpatrick's office if there were town halls scheduled. His staff would only give me info for the day I called. Why? That was a red flag. Outsized resistance to a simple constituent request surprised and alarmed me. I met that resistance by doubling down and calling Fitzpatrick's office every day.
“He’s lying about the Affordable Care Act, and people are suffering, and some, dying. Carry on.” I thought.
The American Buddhist monk Pema Chodron said, “Resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time." It did for me.
The point was no longer the town halls. Rather, I wondered what the heck was this Congressman's game? Why can't people just go to the town halls as often as they wanted, talk about the issues, and just be done with it?
I wanted to attend town halls and take my turn at the microphone asking my congressman about his healthcare reform views. I also wanted to help shape the dialog for the benefit of the town hall attendees, as I am often moved by what others say. Town halls were (are?) an American institution, I thought.
"My daily calling must have rattled some nerves at the congressman’s office. I was informed that no one was allowed to speak to me except the communications director."
It’s been a few years since this performance art action Tracking Town Halls: Do Unscripted Constituent Public Gatherings Matter? ended. The log entries reveal a kind of naiveté and indignation on my part that only the uninitiated exhibit. I was a political neophyte. But it didn't take long for me to realize that Fitzpatrick's office was instructed to give me the runaround. If I didn't know where and when the town halls were happening, I couldn't show up. The press would never see Mike fumbling with a question from an informed constituent -- if that was his fear? He could not think on his feet? Or he didn't have enough knowledge to answer off-the-cuff? Or both. Mike's playbook seemed to be to have a few people in the audience, deliver his canned responses, and get the photo-op for the press. In my experience, Mike was all image over content.
I just wanted to talk to my representative about healthcare reform. What did I step into?
After major complaining about getting the runaround, the local newspaper covered the story. Somehow this newspaper article criticizing Mike Fitzpatrick disappeared. It was scrubbed from the internet. The newspaper said there were inaccuracies...from a veteran reporter. Unlikely. Or were the editors pressured to make the story disappear?? Politics can be dirty.
I learned very quickly I was dealing with an operator .
By the time this 29-month town hall blog ended, I was very schooled in the congressman’s subtle moves to try to derail someone he saw as a political combatant – me. I, on the other hand, saw myself as an advocate for the healthcare law, one who unwittingly unmasked a politician who was, as I saw it, faking it by going to extraordinary lengths to avoid real dialog at town halls.
I concluded that my congressman did, in fact, have a phobic obsession with avoiding impromptu policy talk.
I stopped asking about town halls on election day 2014. Rep. Fitzpatrick kept his seat representing PA's 8th district. (Now PA01). His ruse lived on.
The daily call log is here.
The Story (long version)
During the time I crossed paths with Mike Fitzpatrick, healthcare reform was (and still is) a major issue. I supported the Affordable Care Act a.k.a Obamacare — and still do – as a start to addressing medical bankruptcies, the uninsured and under-insured, job-lock, the unquantifiable psychological trauma people experience dealing with the US healthcare/health insurance system, and even the deaths attributable to those unable to access care.
I learned very quickly I was dealing with an operator. Mike Fitzpatrick was playing me and the entire district. He was having what I called fake town halls. I could not get good information from his staff about when town halls were happening. I thought I could just call and the staff would give me a list of town halls. But I never got a straight answer. Then I would read about his town hall appearances in the newspaper after the fact.
I was angry. I was being played. I thought about what to do. I decided to call the office. Every. Single. Day.
“Are there town halls today, tomorrow, or in the future?” The staff would have to tell me or lie. I deliberately put the staff on the spot by calling every day. It was the only way I thought of to find out if Mike was, in fact, playing me as I had suspected.
Most often the staff would answer, “I can tell you there is no town hall scheduled today.”
“What about tomorrow?” I’d ask. The staff could only give me information for one day, the day I was calling.
Major red flag. Who lives like that? No schedule? Venues needed to be booked. Arrangements needed to be made. I could not let Fitzpatrick get away with hoodwinking me and his constituents like this. What was he so afraid of? Why the overreaction to avoid constituents at town halls? Just tell the woman when the town halls are...and I go away. What started out as an innocent request for town hall information turned into a two-year ordeal of unmasking an elected official.
I concluded that my congressman had a phobic obsession with avoiding impromptu policy talk. He went to extraordinary lengths to control speech. He visited umpteen businesses and called them town halls. Who challenges a congressman at his or her job? These were not real town halls.
Daily town hall notifications (or lack thereof more like it) on Facebook.
I was too busy for this. I was interviewing subjects for Art As Social Inquiry’s Healthcare in the US series. I launched the ASI's How We Die painting series. I was working with PA Health Access Network, giving talks about the Affordable Care Act. And I still had to paint the paintings. I was doing stuff.
The last thing I wanted or expected was to get into a cat-and-mouse game with my representative. The only way I could justify the effort was to record the calls in a daily log on the Art As Social Inquiry website and on Facebook, and share it with others who wanted to go to town halls.
By the end of the first year I was over it. But I gave myself daily pep talks to see this effort through to the end whatever that looked like. “He’s lying about the Affordable Care Act, and people are suffering, and some, dying. Carry on.” I thought.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act had passed but not yet been fully implemented. I had to continue the effort to push for town halls and meaningful public discussion about the law to counter the propaganda hurled at it -- a lot of it from my congressman. I used social media, letters-to-the-editor, and presentations like Truth Tour 2012 Medicare: What’s at Stake? to press for public town halls to talk about healthcare.
My daily calling must have rattled some nerves at the congressman’s office. I was informed that no one was allowed to speak to me except the communications director. The problem was that she was not in the office very often. The situation morphed into me having her cell number and email address. I sent her emails, and when she did not respond, I called.
I was sure the congressman would have town halls and not tell me if I did not keep asking. My representative doubled-down and stopped town halls altogether. He amped up his counter-offensive.
Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick played head games like stopping by my house because he and his communications director were driving by one Saturday morning. (I wasn’t home.) It was creepy. I wasn’t buying into I’m a regular, friendly elected official just passin’ by your house to address your concerns. Yeah, sure. I said I would prefer a meeting at the office.
Or the masterful way the staff tried to make me the problem. “The congressman will meet with you. You should set up an appointment.” Sure. Let’s do it. Somehow that got construed into the congressman wanting to meet with me, but I wouldn’t. Finally, I responded by saying that I would love to meet with the congressman – thank you very much. I wrote the communications director and cc’d a reporter saying the scheduler should set up a time, or stop pretending the congressman wanted a meeting, and making it like I didn’t. He did not.
Back in August 2011 – a year before I started this log and calls for town halls — I took a portrait to my first town hall. I did not know what to expect. I was nervous but determined. I wanted to start telling healthcare stories. I wanted to influence the dialog. The political pushback to the new healthcare law was powerful at the time.
This particular town hall happened in August 2011, a year before I started this log, or had any idea that not having town halls would become a thing. (Mike Fitzpatrick was having town halls then. Why did he stop? This controversy never would have happened.)
I took my turn at the mic and told the story of an uninsured middle-aged woman who lost 85% of her vision in one eye because she could not get medical care. I talked about how the Affordable Care Act would have saved her vision. I was upset, inexperienced and showed it.
After the meeting, one of Fitzpatrick’s staff approached me. Next thing you know I’m ushered into a small room for a private meeting with the congressman. I fell for the special attention but not to the point where I would give up my message or mission.
I bit to a certain extent. I thought I had a great opportunity to lobby the congressman to support healthcare reform. I lobbied away telling him what a great position he was in to make a difference. Seems so silly and naïve now. I called a girlfriend on the drive home. I was so excited that I got a chance to personally lobby my congressman. Like I was going to change his mind. Oh, what a joke. It didn’t take me long to realize I was being played.
By the time this project concluded in 2014, I had seen the congressman pull his PR stunts so many times. I was on to his phony ways.
Once I got a tip from a stranger that the congressman was giving a talk at a church open to all. (The town hall issue was becoming so hot that informants were contacting me.) It was damn inconvenient to have to drop everything and drive the half hour…but, I was determined to confront Rep. Fitzpatricks's on the healthcare law.
I sat in the front row. When the congressman recognized me, I saw him pull the pastor aside and whisper something in his ear. Afterwards the pastor made an announcement that the meeting was for the benefit of the community. The gist of his message was, shut up troublemakers.
Prejudicing the organizer was classic Fitzpatrick — brand people who care about the issues as political enemies, and try to shut them down in any way, ethical or not. After the talk, I approached a church leader to ask if we could arrange an informational session about the Affordable Care Act to counter Mike Fitzpatrick’s misstatements. And we did.
Two town halls happened that the Congressman’s staff did not tell me about — 8/2/2013 in Springtown, PA, and 8/4/2013 in Salford Twp., PA.
Why would the congressman and his staff not share the info? Was it an honest mistake or deliberate lie? They played right into my hands. I dutifully called Fitzpatrick’s office to find out if there were any town halls, but there was no way I was going to be able to go. My son was getting married that weekend. Unfortunately, those relying on the log, who might have been able to go, did not get the info because I didn’t have it to post. Maybe that was the point?
I complained to my local newspaper that I could not get information about town halls. The newspaper put a well-respected, veteran reporter on the story. The article was not complimentary to Congressman Fitzpatrick. Within 24 hours the story was wiped clean from the internet. Why? The newspaper told me there were inaccuracies. No details. No corrections issued the next day. Wholesale deleting of an article. Why? I only discovered the article was wiped from the internet when I went to show it to my husband the day after it was printed in the newspaper. Tech gurus advised me the article might still be in the cache (I had no idea what that was in 2013.), and set out to retrieve it before the piece completely disappeared from the internet. I did. I have the deleted article stored in the could for when I feel brave enough to include it here.