One goal: holding the congressman accountable on a wide range of issues
By Ann McCreary
More than 140 people from throughout Okanogan County congregated at Omak City Hall on Monday (Feb. 6) to request a meeting with their representative in Congress, Dan Newhouse, and share concerns about the direction of national politics.
Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside representing the 4th Congressional District, was not there, but was represented by staff members who host “mobile office hours” for Newhouse each month in Omak to meet with constituents.
Many people in the crowd have been organizing in recent weeks into local political advocacy groups affiliated with the Indivisible or MoveOn movements.
Newhouse’s monthly office hours was seen by members of the newly formed groups as the first opportunity since the national election to test their ability to organize and connect directly with their congressional representative — or in this case his staff members.
Omak city officials opened the council chambers to accommodate the crowd, which initially gathered outside City Hall at about 10:30 a.m. Several people carried signs asking for a town hall meeting with Newhouse.
Jessica McCarthy, district representative for Newhouse, spoke to the gathering and said that the congressman does not currently have any public meetings scheduled in the district. In response to questions from the crowd, she said the next opportunity for a public meeting would likely be sometime in the spring.
According to his Washington, D.C., staff, Newhouse’s last public meeting in the district was at a military academy open house on Dec. 12 in his hometown of Sunnyside. His last visit to the Methow Valley was in August, when he attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting.
No town hall meetings are being scheduled because “the first 100 days [of the new presidential administration] are packed with legislative days,” said Will Boyington, Newhouse’s communications director.
He said Newhouse will schedule some “telephone town halls to engage with constituents,” but did not provide dates.
McCarthy and another staff member, Ryan MacDonald, met with about 100 people throughout the day Monday. The staffers met with individuals and small groups of people in a conference room in Omak City Hall.
Staff members said that between two and 10 people are usually seen during the monthly office hours, which are held from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. to address constituent concerns. Staff stayed until 3:30 p.m. Monday to meet people who were waiting.
“This has been an exceptional event,” said Boyington. “It’s never happened before.”
The large crowd organized itself into ad-hoc interest groups, and designated people to meet with Newhouse’s staff to discuss issues including health care, immigration, government ethics, public lands, federal regulations, national security, environment and climate change. Many brought copies of letters addressed to Newhouse to leave with the staff members.
As people waited in a hallway outside the conference room to speak with Newhouse’s staff, individual speakers addressed the crowd in the council chambers on issues of concern.
Some of the speakers were critical of Newhouse’s voting record and political positions. However, when Pat Leigh of Winthrop asked people to raise their hands if they voted for Newhouse in the last election, the majority put their hands in the air.
“Look at this, Representative Newhouse, we voted for you,” Leigh said. She also voted for Newhouse, she said, rather than the Tea Party candidate who opposed him in 2016.
Several speakers expressed concern about Republicans’ vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
Raleigh Bowden of Twisp said she is a volunteer house-call doctor in Okanogan County, and through her work sees “the health care access and quality issues in our rural district.”
Bowden shared the story of a 63-year-old woman who was uninsured for 10 years before signing up for coverage through the ACA in 2014. She was having trouble walking because of a hip disease and eventually lost her job as a baker because of the pain.
“She became depressed and lived on $700 a month,” Bowden said.
After receiving insurance through the ACA, the woman was able to get hip replacement surgery, and “is now back at work, happy and a productive member of our community,” Bowden said.
Bowden called for a meaningful replacement plan that continues health care coverage before the ACA is repealed.
Health care was the issue that concerned Kari Bown of Twisp, who met with the staff members.
“I am a breast cancer survivor,” Bown told the staffers. “I am very concerned about losing my health insurance and that I will not be able to get insurance because of a pre-existing condition” if the ACA is repealed. The ACA prohibits denial of coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
“Health care is a right in a country like this,” Bown told the staff members. If the ACA is repealed, she said, “it needs to be replaced with something comparable or better. It needs to be a solid part of peoples’ well-being.”
The Newhouse staffers acknowledged “a lot of anxiety and concern” about the future of health care. They referred Bown to a plan developed by House Republicans in June 2016 called “A Better Way.”
Bown thanked the staff members for listening to her. “My hope is it goes up the chain and that Newhouse is truly listening,” she said after the meeting.
Ann Diamond, a primary care physician from Mazama, also met with the Newhouse staff members Monday, along with four other Okanogan County physicians. “Multiple plans have come forth” since “A Better Way” came out last summer, she said.
Diamond said she has previously contacted Newhouse’s staff to discuss health care. “They’ve all said they don’t have any special training or awareness of this topic,” she said.
The group of five Okanogan County doctors offered to study health care proposals for Newhouse and serve as “an advisory board, not to necessarily push any particular agenda, but to educate and let [Newhouse] know … what different health care plans might mean for Okanogan County.”
Diamond said the staff members said they would speak with Newhouse’s chief of staff in Washington, D.C., about the physicians’ offer to serve as advisers on health care.
“It’s a first step,” Diamond said. “There’s a tentative ‘yes.’ We’ll keep moving forward.”
The large turnout for Newhouse’s office hours was described as a success by citizens who have been mobilizing for political action through MoveOn or Indivisible, both progressive advocacy organizations.
The groups targeted the office hours as an opportunity to show their commitment and strength in numbers.
“Despite one of the largest snowstorms of the year, people from all over Okanogan County came together … to make clear Congressman Newhouse will be held accountable by all his constituents. His votes and leadership matter to us,” said Elizabeth Weiss of Winthrop.
Weiss helped found an Indivisible group that began meeting last month, and many members of the group made the trip to Omak and brought letters for Newhouse.
Indivisible is an advocacy approach developed after the November election of Donald Trump by former congressional staff members. In December they published an online “guide for resisting the Trump agenda” that draws lessons from the success of the Tea Party in organizing locally and influencing Congress.
At least eight citizen advocacy groups have been formed in the Methow Valley in recent weeks. Most of them follow the Indivisible guidelines, which provide detailed instructions on ways to influence members of Congress. Some local groups have formally registered on the Indivisible website.
“We got together right after the election,” said Cameron Green, who is part of an all-woman Indivisible group that was one of the first in the Methow Valley to be formed.
“It broadens the base of people educating themselves about civic responsibility and holding leaders responsible,” Green said. “They are working for us, and we should be telling them how to behave, not the other way around.”
Many people who walked in the Jan. 21 Women’s Marches in Twisp, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were motivated to look for ways to continue their political involvement, said Deirdre Cassidy of Winthrop, who helped launch a group last month.
“Several people had been to the marches and got inspired,” said Cassidy. Members cited different motivations for becoming politically active, she said.
“Some wanted to do this for their children. They feel the fabric of our democracy is unraveling and they’re really concerned about their future,” Cassidy said.
“Some people had never been politically involved or inclined. One person didn’t vote until they were 40 years old … but felt they couldn’t just sit by,” Cassidy said.
Judith Hardmeyer-Wright, a longtime MoveOn member, hosted a meeting last month in Winthrop and 25 people showed up. Three different groups were formed out of that meeting; one focuses on health care, another on the environment and public lands, and a third is focused on keeping track of Newhouse and his voting record.
Joyce Bergen said members of the group she joined recently in Winthrop shared stories about their contacts with government officials.
“One person had called Newhouse’s office repeatedly and always received the same identical email in response,” Bergen said.
Bill Kilby of Winthrop, whose Indivisible group has health care as its primary focus, was among the Methow Valley residents who traveled to Omak Monday.
“Whether or not our voices were heard may hinge on the strong showing of hands of those who voted for Mr. Newhouse in the recent election,” Kilby said.
“What I would hope to see come out of this are more thoughtful responses to our communiqués with Mr. Newhouse; not just thank you notes accompanied by campaign style rhetoric,” he said.
The various groups that have formed in the Methow Valley have made plans to bring representatives together in a meeting next Wednesday (Feb. 15) at 5:30 p.m. in the Education Station at TwispWorks. A gathering of representatives of groups from around the county was scheduled to take place on Feb. 8 in Okanogan.
Susan Prichard of Winthrop said she expects the energy that motivated people like her to travel to Omak to continue.
“It would be a mistake to assume that this was a temporary response after the November 2016 election,” Prichard said. “My sense from the collective voices there is that we are paying attention, getting organized and will actively engage in our democratic process.”
With so much change underway in national politics, it’s “easy to feel overwhelmed,” said Weiss.
“How do we make this something that is sustainable? We need to do our best to use our energy effectively and not squander it,” Weiss said. “This is an endurance event. It’s not a sprint.”