Not since the early days of U.S. Rep. Dick Armey have congressional town halls been such a spectator sport.
Armey, never warm and fuzzy, was famous for hosting Arlington town halls where he listened to voters’ tales of woe and groused, “Not my job,” or “That’s your own fault,” or “Can’t help. Next!”
By night’s end, Armey made it clear that if the question involved spending more money, he was against it. He listened. He just deflected every request.
For the last 25 years, Arlington has been represented in Congress by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, once described in the Star-Telegram as “not conservative enough” for the city.
Now 67, Barton is reckoning with both a new generation of disgruntled voters and the rapid velocity of social media.
On Saturday, 60 miles south of Arlington at a town hall in the remote Navarro County town of Frost, Barton responded to one vocal critic by shouting back, “You, sir — shut up!”
All town halls begin with ground rules … One gentleman continued to speak over myself and many others who were seeking recognition in orderly fashion.Statement from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton
As the “shut up” video clip reached 60,000 views on social media, Barton’s target, Grand Prairie High School fine arts teacher Chris Lewis, said he “probably was out of line.”
Lewis, an Arlington resident, said he came to oppose federal school vouchers and House Resolution 610 weakening the U.S. Department of Education.
Lewis said as a teacher, he wasn’t upset at Barton’s retort.
“I’ve heard worse,” he said.
“Passions were rising. Honestly, I was speaking out of turn. I’m very concerned about the public schools and the impact of vouchers.”
Barton had set ground rules. Later, he let Lewis speak.
Barton’s only two town halls Saturday were in Frost and Milford, both 60 miles from Arlington.
Barton said in a statement: “One gentleman continued to speak over myself and many others who were seeking recognition in orderly fashion.”
The last time town halls were this rowdy, it was 2009 and Tea Party conservatives were stunned at both the economic slowdown and the election of President Barack Obama.
The response produced at least one elected official: state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, urged to run in 2011 after he publicly berated U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess over the federal debt limit during a Keller town hall.
Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Tim O’Hare, a Southlake lawyer, praised members of Congress for coming home for town halls, but said he’s concerned about “an organized effort to make Republicans think a majority of people have far-left views.”
Whatever the reason, Barton’s coming back for more.
He will host two or more town halls in April, this time in Tarrant County.