Sen. Marco Rubio won’t participate in town hall meetings because he says political activists will crash them to create a media spectacle of people who “heckle and scream at me in front of cameras.”
“They are not town halls anymore,” the Florida Republican told CBS4-Miami’s Jim DeFede on Sunday. “What these groups really want is for me to schedule a public forum, they then organize three, four, five, six hundred liberal activists in the two counties or wherever I am in the state.”
Citing protesting tips published by the new Indivisible movement, Rubio told the station that activists are instructed to go to town halls early and “take up all the front seats. They spread themselves out. They ask questions. They all cheer when the questions are asked. They are instructed to boo no matter what answer I give. They are instructed to interrupt me if I go too long and start chanting things. Then, at the end, they are also told not to give up their microphone when they ask questions. It’s all in writing in this Indivisible document.”
While Rubio has avoided town halls, fellow Republicans in Florida and around the nation have shown up at public forums and taken the heat. Some Republicans have refused, with Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert invoking the 2011 shooting of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a Democrat.
“I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning my offices were open to the public,” Giffords said on Twitter. “To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage. Face your constituents. Hold town halls.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed that sentiment during an interview with Jake Tapper on Sunday morning on CNN. “Welcome to the real world of responsibility,” he said to Republicans who don’t want to hold town halls. Christie said he himself had held more than 160 town halls during his two terms.
Rubio’s refusal to participate in town halls and face criticism over his opposition to Obamacare started to come into clear focus Thursday after a union activist and other demonstrators tracked him down in Miami at a time when he had led many to believe he was in Europe for meetings.
Rubio told CBS4-Miami that he enjoys town halls and wishes he could do them still, citing the times he held “idea raisers” with constituents to help set his agenda as Florida House speaker in 2007-08. However, those events were organized through the Republican Party of Florida, and the crowds tended to self-select more Republicans and conservatives than Democrats, independents, liberals and moderates.
During the period Rubio led the Florida House and held office as a state representative, Florida had one of the highest rates of the uninsured in the nation, and none of Rubio’s proposed reforms made a discernible impact in reducing the cost of health insurance or the number of people who lacked coverage. Only after Obamacare mandated that most people buy coverage did the rate of the uninsured tick down notably in Florida. The number of uninsured would be slightly lower if the state Legislature had not refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Asked whether he thinks today’s town hall crowds do not consist of “real people,” Rubio was quick to dispel the notion.
“These are real people. They are real liberal activists, and I respect their right to do it. But it is not a productive exercise,” Rubio replied in the interview. “It’s all designed to have news coverage at night — look at all these angry people screaming at your senator.”
Rubio adhered to the same position — that town hall demonstrators are “real people” — in 2009 when he ran against Gov. Charlie Crist for Senate. Back then, Democrats were complaining that the forums were being hijacked by conservative activists.
“They don’t think that these are real people,” Rubio said of Crist in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper in 2009. “They’re so insulated. Never has our political class been more insulated from the real lives of real people.”
Just as town hall demonstrators now say the political winds have shifted, Rubio said then that there was a change afoot that could haunt politicians.
“This has been a real shock but a great awakening,” Rubio told the newspaper then. “People say, ‘You’re not going to win with just tea-party people and town-hall people, there’s not enough of them.’ I think they’re wrong.”
In his CBS4-Miami interview, Rubio said he just won reelection by a landslide, 7.7 percentage points. Rubio won 58 of 67 counties, but he lost the most votes in liberal South Florida, where the Miami senator lives and where opposition to him is strongest. Rubio said he has long made it clear that he wants to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“It would be unfair to the people that voted for me, many of whom voted for me because of my opposition to Obamacare, to now suddenly vote like the person I beat,” he told CBS4-Miami. “And so that’s what I intend to do, and in six years if people don’t agree with that and I run for reelection, they can vote against me.”
Rubio’s fellow Florida senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, has held three low-key public meetings — two with students in Florida and one concerning health care — and his office wouldn’t say Sunday whether he would have any more.
Rubio said he believes that “80 to 90 percent” of the people at the town halls were organized by activists.
“I have no problem justifying my views on these issues. The problem is they are not designed to have a productive engagement,” Rubio told the station. “They are designed to heckle and scream at me in front of cameras so that Channel 4 and other networks and other stations at night will report.”