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Protesters Visit Congressman's Office

Courier-Post — February 18, 2017

Written by
Carol Comegno

EVESHAM — Peaceful protesters walked into the district office of Rep. Tom MacArthur on Friday to voice their displeasure with his refusal to hold town hall meetings as he had before the election of President Donald Trump.

One of their goals was to refute claims by MacArthur, R-NJ, that town halls in some districts are being "hijacked" by paid protesters being bused in and by people who are not constituents of the districts.

Their other intent was to invite the 3rd District congressman, via his district staff director, to a grassroots town hall scheduled next week in Evesham by citizen organizations. The Citizens Town Hall will be held even if he does not attend.

MacArthur says his town hall schedule is on hold because he doesn't "want to be baited into having an event that some outside group can just make a spectacle out of.'' Instead, MacArthur held a one-hour telephone town hall Monday, where constituents were invited to call in their questions.

Thirty demonstrators arrived without an appointment Friday morning at the township-owned Gibson House Community Center on Tuckerton Road in Evesham, where MacArthur rents an office.

Protesters carried signs declaring, "I am a constituent," "I'm not being paid to come here," and "Hey, Tom, the only one getting paid here is you."

"We wanted to let him know we are here and we are real constituents who have never been paid for this," said Christina Carrell, a freelance writer and spokeswoman for the newly formed Action Together Burlington County.

MacArthur's local district staff director Frank Luna led the visitors into an empty banquet hall and then met with them while he sat in a chair at a table.

MacArthur's staff requested an Evesham police officer be present after learning about the planned visit. The officer stayed until the group left, but there were no incidents.

Luna's initial response to the invitation for the congressman to attend the town hall Wednesday was, "No, he will not be there." When the group pressed for a reason why he added, "Because he will not be there."

"I don't understand why he is afraid of a bunch of women," Marlton's Isabel Abreu said — all but a few of the 30 protesters were female.

His Washington, D.C., office issued this statement about his decision: "Unfortunately, recent town hall meetings across the country have devolved into unproductive shouting matches, with highly-organized, partisan special interest groups effectively hijacking the forums and crowding out local residents who want respectful discourse.

"He fully intends to resume town hall meetings but will not be baited by outside groups who are hijacking events to push a political agenda."

The group accepted an offer from Luna for a future sit-down with MacArthur. His Washington spokeswoman, Camille Gallo, said staff is in the process of finding potential dates for the group to meet with the congressman or someone in his office.

"In coming here today without an appointment, the group was clearly interested in a show," Luna asserted in an interview after the meeting.

But he added, "This group was peaceful and friendly and that was great."

Carrell disagreed the constituents were trying to put on a show. "All we want is a dialogue," she said, calling MacArthur's refusal to hold a town hall "disloyal" to those who live in his district.

Various members of the group also voiced praise for MacArthur on several other issues. They asked Luna and other staff members there to convey their thanks for his support and hiring of military veterans, his work to save and bolster Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and his recent House vote against a swift repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement program.

Action Together Burlington County, which began after the presidential election with 19 people meeting at PJ Whelihan's in Medford, has grown rapidly to 750 members, with more joining daily, according to Carrell.

"I'm taking this time off from my job today to be here because I care," said Lisa Soley of Marlton, who held one end of a banner reading, "United We Stand."

Barbara Blonsky of Mount Laurel also wants the congressman to face his constituents.

Blonsky later called MacArthur's assertions about paid protesters and busing "an outrageous lie."

After MacArthur opted for the call-in town hall Monday, New Jersey Citizen Action and South Jersey NOW-Alice Paul Chapter (Indivisible) organized a town hall event that will be held Wednesday in Evesham to air concerns on issues ranging from Russian connections to the Trump administration and health care to the environment and climate change.

The forum will be 7 p.m. at DeMasi School, 199 Evesboro-Medford Road in Evesham.

"The meeting will be filled with people from his district and we will be addressing questions to an empty podium in order to demonstrate that we are involved and concerned constituents," Blonsky said.

Retired Dr. Eileen G. Hill of Moorestown was so concerned about the election outcome and its aftermath that she started the Indivisible chapter of South Jersey NOW.

"After the election, like a lot of people, I have felt compelled to do something to stop the madness," she said in a phone interview Friday.

"We have been begging Rep. Tom MacArthur for an in-person town hall to discuss all of the frightening things that have been happening in Washington."

Conservationist and athlete Margo Pellegrino of Medford Lakes called the phone-in town hall "hardly a conversation."

She said such a format enables call screeners to "weed out folks who will ask uncomfortable questions."

"There are growing numbers of us who have been motivated to involve ourselves in the quagmire that many view as politics these days," said Pellegrino, who has canoed or kayaked many major and minor connecting waterways in the U.S. and usually takes water samples along the way.

She plans to attend the Wednesday town hall.

"So much of what we take for granted — a woman's right to choose her own destiny, our right to clean water and air, our right to affordable health care and even our national security — is all at stake."

Friday's protest was not the first at his Evesham district office. Every Wednesday New Jersey Citizens Action holds a candlelight vigil there and at the seven other GOP congressional offices in the state to oppose repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

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