U.S. Representative Tim Bishop has temporarily suspended holding “town hall” style meetings after Suffolk County Police were called by residents to escort him back to his car amid a throng of rowdy protesters who turned out for a meeting in Setauket last month.
The Southampton congressman, who has held more than 100 of the open meetings since being elected in 2002, cancelled another town hall meeting scheduled the week after the Setauket event and has not scheduled any others for the immediate future. Instead, he has opted to attend a variety of other events in the district.
Aides say he will hold the town hall meetings again once they can be sure the meetings will be constructive.
“The only issue that needs to be addressed is to make sure that we’re able to do town hall meetings in a way that is helpful and constructive,” Jon Schneider, Mr. Bishop’s aide, said this week. “The congressman always says the reason he does open town halls is because he wants to hear from people who disagree with him. We just need to have those exchanges in a civil manner.”
When he arrived at the June 22 meeting in Setauket, Mr. Bishop was greeted by nearly 200 boisterous protesters shouting criticisms on a wide array of topics, from global warming to health care reform to financial bailouts of automobile manufacturers. About 75 of the protesters filed into the back of the meeting room, along with another 75 attendees, while the rest of the crowd remained outside chanting and shouting protests and waving placards at passing motorists.
According to Mr. Schneider, who was at the meeting, and news coverage of the meeting appearing in the Times Beacon Record, a North Shore newspaper, the vocal crowd of protesters hijacked the conversation, shouting out their questions and shouting over answers.
Video footage taken at the meeting and shown on the website YouTube shows Mr. Bishop attempting to answer questions from protesters about global warming and being shouted down by criticism, and follow-up questions after only a few words of response.
Mr. Schneider said the harsh treatment was not reserved only for the Democratic congressman. He said that an older woman, nearly in tears, had stood up to speak, asking Mr. Bishop about government plans for health care reform that could help her son, who had recently lost his job and his healthcare plan along with it. Someone standing along the walls at the back of the room shouted: “Why doesn’t he get a job!” Mr. Schneider recalled.
“The congressman can take it,” the longtime aide said. “But when something like that happens, people aren’t going to want to ask questions. We want a forum in which people can share their opinions and share their stories. We all need to be respectful of one another.”
Five Suffolk County Police officers arrived about an hour into the Setauket meeting. Mr. Schneider said he asked one of the officers who had called them, and the officer responded “everybody.” Mr. Schneider said Mr. Bishop never felt threatened by the protesters and that none of them ever made any threatening gestures toward him or touched him physically in any way.
Nonetheless, after the 90-minute meeting was over, the five officers walked with Mr. Bishop back to his car, which he had been forced to park several blocks from the meeting hall due to the large turnout. The swarm followed him and during the walk Mr. Bishop held an on-camera interview about global warming with a woman in a T-shirt and baseball cap who said she was from the Long Island Alternative News Channel. She stated during the interview that there is “scientific proof” that global warming is not happening.
“They seemed to be of the belief that the government doesn’t do anything right,” Mr. Schneider said of the protesters. “When the congressman said he believes in climate change, that brought a vast howl from the crowd. When he said the government is delivering some good services, he cited the VA, and that got a howl.”
Another Bishop legislative aide, Will Jenkins, said the protesters, who seemed to be affiliated with a number of local grassroots groups, have been attending public meetings featuring other Democratic legislators and protesting at the offices of Democratic U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Mr. Jenkins said Mr. Bishop, who was in Washington, D.C., this week, cancelled another town hall meeting scheduled for later that week, though he has attended a number of public meetings since and will resume town hall meetings in the future. Despite being in session all week, the congressman attended five community events this past Saturday, including a senior citizens group meeting at which a small crowd of protesters turned out.
Mr. Jenkins added that Mr. Bishop has scheduled more time in his local office to meet with constituents, including some of the protesters from the Setauket meeting.
“He’s going to make sure he does things to hear everyone’s views,” Mr. Jenkins said, “whether they agree with him or not.”