February 10, 2017 Greensboro - Beth Long (foreground) and other protesters hold their signs during Open Office Day event at Greene County Government Office in Greensboro on Friday, February 10, 2017. Hundreds of protesters flocked to a “constituent service day” for U.S. Senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson and Rep. Jody Hice in this east Georgia town, cheering as one speaker after another railed against the three Republicans and the Trump administration. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

Protest overwhelms GOP congressional aides in east Georgia

Hundreds of protesters gathered at a “constituent service day” for U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice in this east Georgia town, cheering as one speaker after another railed against the three Republicans and the Trump administration.

The three lawmakers were not at the meeting, which was designed to give residents a chance to hash out grievances about passports and Social Security claims without driving to Atlanta. The half-dozen or so aides staffing the event were clearly caught off guard by the size and organization of the protesters, and they briefly walked out of the room to chants of “Shame!”

It was the latest in a wave of national protests that rocked GOP events after Trump’s inauguration, and left-leaning activists and other critics of the president targeted Friday’s session — one of the first congressional events since the election — as a chance to make a statement.

“I’ve never called my congressman — ever — until four or five weeks ago,” said Ron Denham, who echoed many of the speakers in voicing complaints about getting busy signals or voicemail boxes when trying to contact their representatives. “These people need to represent us, and our voice needs to get louder and louder and louder.”

Democrats see the pressure as a sign of a nationwide awakening spurred by Trump’s inauguration. Millions protested in women’s marches across the nation on Jan. 21, while his immigration policy led to another round of rallies at airports. Now, Trump’s critics are transforming the typically low-key congressional events.

They’ve filmed Republicans ducking hostile encounters, held raucous rallies outside the town hall events and commandeered microphones inside them to unleash their frustration. One California Republican needed a police escort to cut through a ring of protesters surrounding his event. And an angry crowd drowned out U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz at a town hall Thursday in deeply conservative Utah.

Many Republicans — elected officials and otherwise — have been dismissive of the movement. They say the Democratic groundswell will not connect with average voters in Georgia, which Trump won by 5 percentage points.

“This makes me very concerned for the country,” said Jay George, a Republican in Greensboro who sat through the protest, at times visibly upset with the speakers. “There are big differences of opinion in this country and they all need to be heard. But when this country has suffered for so long, we need to give Trump a chance to prove himself.”

‘Death and debt’

It’s impossible to tell now whether this burgeoning movement will have a lasting impact, like the tea party response to Barack Obama’s election as president that triggered a wave of Republican wins. But left-leaning groups across the state have reported a spike in donations, volunteers and potential candidates for elected office after Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

They have held their own raucous town hall meetings, flooded the phone lines of GOP lawmakers and protested outside their offices. And on Friday, at least 200 people — many from metro Atlanta and Athens — packed a cramped Greene County government building to unleash their frustration at Trump to GOP aides.

Among them was Caroline Keegan, a University of Georgia graduate student who told the crowd the $30,000 health care bill she tallied after she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease was covered under the Affordable Care Act because she was under 26. But she worries how she’ll pay the $5,000 monthly bills when she graduates if Republicans dismantle the law.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” Keegan said, adding: “I don’t know if I’ll be able to access my health care. I feel like I’m being condemned to choose between death and debt.”

Many other speakers were critical of Trump’s immigration policy, his Cabinet appointments and his foreign policy pronouncements. But the protesters saved their strongest words for GOP congressmen, who they said were failing to stand up to Trump.

“It’s not just progressives and liberals. Because I’m not one,” said Heidi Morton of Smyrna. “There are a lot of conservatives and Republicans that can’t stand Trump. And Republican politicians need to know their constituents are out here.”

Aides to the lawmakers scrambled to respond as the event drew national attention. Hice deputy Josh Findlay was sent back in the room to listen to each of the speakers, and he stood by the podium jotting down notes about each of their concerns. Outside the cramped room, staffers met in small groups with constituents and, later, some of the protesters.

Even before the event started, the senators’ offices said it was never meant to be a traditional town hall meeting.

“Staff from our office periodically hold ‘open office days’ alone or together with other congressional offices around the state to assist constituents in interacting with federal agencies and to be available in person for those seeking to express views or concerns to Senator Isakson while he is working in Washington,” Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said.

Perdue spokeswoman Caroline Vanvick said the senator’s goal is to “help as many Georgians as possible who have casework concerns and need assistance dealing with federal agencies like so many of our veterans and seniors.”

She added, “If organized groups want to manufacture protests and continue to be disruptive, it will only deny those who really need help.”

It was a veiled reference to several groups that helped organize speakers and marshal convoys to Greensboro. One of the largest was Athens for Everyone, which held a Thursday evening meeting to discuss talking points and delivered dozens of protesters from the college town, a Democratic bastion in Hice’s otherwise conservative district.

The scope of the movement unnerved some local Republicans who wondered why there wasn’t a more forceful GOP response.

“Trump hasn’t had a honeymoon period, he hasn’t been given the opportunity to have a fair shake,” said Gee George, who was also at the meeting. “But what strikes me is that this is such an organized group. Where is the other side? Why weren’t more Republicans here?”

The Trump critics, meanwhile, said this was far from their last event. Smaller protests have already been planned outside the offices of Isakson and Perdue, and bigger gatherings are in the works.

“This is what America looks like,” Atlanta activist Lukis Newborn said as he surveyed the room. “This is the new norm. This is what a movement looks like.”

The protests that have rocked Republican events across the nation arrived in Georgia on Friday when Donald Trump opponents turned a mundane “mobile office hours” with aides to three GOP lawmakers into a stand against the new president.