WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom MacArthur was partway through a teleconference with constituents Monday night when one raised a sensitive subject: Why wasn't he speaking to them in person, at a town hall?
The South Jersey congressman had a ready answer, one echoing Republicans throughout the region and country. He said such events were being "hijacked."
"I like hearing divergent views, but I don't want to be baited into having an event that some outside group can just make a spectacle out of," MacArthur said, accusing protesters of being "bused in" or paid to cause disruption.
Congressional Republicans heading home for a weeklong recess are taking a wary approach to public events as they face a wave of activism that has grown since President Trump's election. Given a week in their districts, the public schedules for lawmakers from the Philadelphia area are sparse to nonexistent.
None of the region's Republicans plan open town halls that might put them before a crowd and facing questions, despite protests and a flood of social media posts requesting them. While they said they'll be meeting with constituents and community groups, the events are mostly smaller sit-downs behind closed doors, guarding against the viral video confrontations that have flummoxed other Republicans.
No one wants to be the next Jason Chaffetz, the congressman whose rowdy reception in deep red Utah this month sounded alarms for the GOP.
Local Republicans are instead relying on large conference calls with constituents. Dubbed "tele-town halls," the events are not quite anodyne — three this week included questions on some hot topics. But they are bloodless. Aides screen the questions and there are no follow-ups, crowd reactions, or visuals.
All of which left some activists demanding more.
"I had to listen to a lot of upset and frustrated patients in my lifetime," said Eileen Hill, a retired doctor from Mount Laurel who joined MacArthur's teleconference. "You know what makes them more upset? When you don't let them talk and they feel like they're not being heard."
Hill, 62, voted for Hillary Clinton but said she was never politically active — she said she didn't even know who her congressman was six weeks ago. Now, she helped arrange what she calls "a forced town hall" for MacArthur. She and liberal groups have invited people to gather Wednesday at a Marlton school, and asked the congressman to show up and listen.
A similar event is planned next week targeting Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) in Allentown. After he held a tele-town hall Thursday with 90 minutes' notice, his Facebook page filled with more than 5,700 responses, many blasting him for not talking to voters in person.
"It's the same reason people like to go to concerts instead of just listening to the radio or buying the album," said Nancy Bea Miller, a 53-year-old artist and teacher who has protested outside Toomey's Philadelphia office and dismissed the telephone event. "Looking someone in the eye, even if it's across an auditorium, really helps you judge the person, decide how sincere they are."
The situation mirrors the tea party protests that swamped Democrats in 2009 and 2010. On the back of that wave, Republicans won three local House seats previously held by Democrats.
"They disrupted, they created buzz around their issues and made people respond," said Barbara Blonsky, another Mount Laurel Democrat who is among those pressuring MacArthur. "They really are the model for this."
Republicans don't want to play into the effort. They accuse Democrats of ginning up crowds.
"I have no plans to have one of these big, sort of circus meetings," Rep. Peter Roskam (R., Ill.) told a Chicago radio station. In upstate New York, Rep. Chris Collins told a TV station that at town halls, "what you get are demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you. … They are not what you hope they would be."
On Friday, the political arm of the liberal Center for American Progress alerted reporters that it had "ordinary Americans" who rely on the Affordable Care Act ready to speak out at coming town halls.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.) met Friday with five constituent groups at his Mays Landing office. He said "that has been my style for years" and he has no plans for a town hall "for the sole purpose of those only seeking their YouTube moment."
Those he sat with said it was no substitute for a public event.
Activists across several districts had one common goal: to push Republicans who control Congress to serve as a check on the president.
While the most vigorous protests have targeted Toomey, he is politically insulated — he won't face reelection again until 2022. House members, however, have to run next year and could be on the front lines of any Trump backlash. Reps. Ryan Costello of Chester County and Patrick Meehan of Delaware County represent districts the president lost, according to data analyzed by website Daily Kos.
They are among those utilizing tele-town halls. The events start with automated calls blasted out to homes in each lawmaker's district, inviting anyone who answers to join in. In some cases constituents can sign up to be included or submit questions online.
MacArthur took 19 questions over his one-hour call Monday, and more than 4,000 people participated, his office said. He spoke about Social Security, climate change, and why he wasn't holding a formal town hall.
"I take offense when you say that these town halls have been hijacked," said a woman who identified herself as Jodi from Brick. "I went to the Women's March in D.C. - no one paid me, I went with my 22-year-old daughter, I'm a teacher. …"
And then her phone cut out. MacArthur later said that there was a technical problem and that he spoke with Jodi by phone days later.
Republicans object to any suggestion they aren't listening. Tele-town halls, they said, connect them with thousands of residents. "It's a very effective way to stay in touch and to listen to the concerns that you have," Meehan said on his call Wednesday night.
The accusations that the crowds are paid or orchestrated, though, recall Democrats' ill-fated dismissal of the tea party as an "Astroturf" movement.
Hill, Miller and other newly energized activists acknowledged they have followed guidelines from the liberal group Indivisible, which offers advice on how to pressure members of Congress. But they stressed they were driven to action by their own concerns, on their own time, and laughed at the idea they were paid.
"If you know who's making payments to people, please inform me so I can get paid for my time," Blonsky said. "We have legitimate questions about our fears about this administration."
Some lawmakers are still braving town halls. Rep. Leonard Lance (R., N.J.) is planning two next week in his Central New Jersey district — one that Trump lost.
"It's important to communicate with constituents and to have constituents communicate with me," Lance said. "Having said that, I hope that the level of discussion will be conducted with civility."