Bloodshed could have chilling effect on forums

2011-01-10T00:00:00Z Bloodshed could have chilling effect on forums Arizona Daily Star
January 10, 2011 12:00 am

ATLANTA - If the hostile town hall meetings over the new health-care program proved anything, it is this: Face-to-face democracy still matters, even in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

But the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a constituent meeting could have a chilling effect on such encounters - and drive lawmakers even further from those they represent.

Members of Congress on Sunday pledged not to let the bloodshed keep them from mingling with the public. Even so, some said they'll give extra thought to precautions, such as a visible police presence and more secure locations.

"I think it needs to be a wake-up call for members who have treated . . . their own personal security in a cavalier way," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

Making it harder for people to access those who represent them could give credence to a rallying cry of the tea-party movement: The "ruling class" of government in Washington is too far removed from voters.

Town hall events and meet-and-greets remain one of the last vestiges of old-fashioned grass-roots politics, a rare chance in the technology-crazed culture for voters to have a give-and-take with lawmakers.

Those events have become more scripted, with participants screened by organizers in some cases. In others, interest groups deploy teams of activists to create a hubbub tailor-made for the TV cameras.

And members of Congress say informal gatherings - like the "Congress on Your Corner" supermarket stop Giffords was hosting when she was attacked - are invaluable in helping them break out of the Beltway mind-set and connect with constituents.

Experts say social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly important ways for busy members of Congress to communicate with the public.

Even campaigns are frequently conducted above voters' heads these days, with pricey TV ads and cheap e-mail blasts chosen over time-consuming handshakes on the trail.

Some in Washington said it was imperative for members to remain accessible.

"I'm going to be at the basketball game on the front row. I'll be in the grocery store in a few minutes. I mean, we'll be out just like elected officials are supposed to be," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said on CNN on Sunday.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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