Jeff Jardine

Why didn’t Denham schedule town hall meeting to face his constituents?

They all but filed a missing person’s report on Rep. Jeff Denham this month, stopping just short of offering a reward to anyone who could find our local congressman and convince him to appear at a town hall meeting.

No such luck. Denham wanted no part of a gathering in the 10th Congressional District similar to the three 4th District Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, braved in his, including a two-session verbal bloodletting Wednesday night in Sonora.

Across the nation, GOP congressional representatives went home to face angry constituents who clearly don’t like what they’ve seen thus far from President Donald Trump – including some who voted for him in November – as well as others don’t think he’s gone far enough fast enough. Suddenly, people who used to detest Congress but loved their district’s representative have turned on him/her too. And just as suddenly, many politicians who played to crowds during the campaigns now avoid them.

When 10th District resident Buda Kajer-Crain of Modesto emailed to ask Denham to hold a similar town hall in the Modesto area, Denham’s reply deflected. He’s active in the district, he wrote. He has hosted teletown hall meetings (conference calls) and participated in other events.

“While I have fielded an increased number of requests for an in-person town hall, my top priority is to ensure the Central Valley’s voice is heard and not suppressed by the bullying cries of outraged Bay Area residents who want to impose their opinions and way of life on our community.”

“The sentence that really struck me was this one,” Kajer-Crain noted when she forwarded to The Bee his entire response:

“As your representative, I respect and will listen to all concerns, but I will not react to top-down partisan directives that seek to make a forum into a circus,” he wrote.

In other words, no town hall for you, 10th District. In other, other words, if Tom McClintock wants to subject himself to verbal abuse at the risk of actually impressing some detractors, have fun.

Instead, Denham spent the majority of his time in the district in meetings out of the public eye. He dropped in unannounced at Stanislaus County’s Office of Emergency Services, where officials are monitoring the flooding. He visited, also without advance fanfare, the spillway at Don Pedro Dam and, I’m told, a flooded area to the west. When I called his Modesto office to confirm what all he did this trip west, staffers referred me to his Washington, D.C., office, which didn’t respond.

Meanwhile, constituents still want answers and they don’t want to search for them on his Web page or watch the controlled video snippets he posts on Twitter. They want to hear from the congressman himself. Some want to want to vent their frustrations to his face. They want him to hear how repealing Obamacare will leave them without health insurance, or how it has saved family members. They want Planned Parenthood funding continued, Social Security and Medicare left alone. They want to know how, in good conscience, he can support Trump’s immigration stance in a valley that relies on migrant farmworkers for its economy. They want to ask questions with the ability to respond to his answers in real time.

Others want to pat him on the back, tell him to ignore the critics and keep doing what he’s doing. But even some Denham backers, such as Tariff Risinger of Turlock, agree he should face the people directly when he is in the district.

“Yes, I would like to see him do that,” Risinger said. Risinger served in the Marines, who aren’t in the habit of shying away from much of anything, let alone critics.

However, visit Denham’s online page and navigate to “upcoming events,” then “town hall meetings,” and all you’ll find is a big, blank space. That is why locals joined a statewide “Have you seen my Congressperson?” effort intended to goad several suddenly under-the-radar representatives into coming out to face their constituents. Organizers billed the vigils as “the chance to ramp up the pressure on Republicans to protect healthcare and immigrants” while they were home on the congressional break and away from the pack mentality of partisan politics.

About 200 people met in a Turlock park Thursday night, made some speeches, said some prayers and then walked around the neighborhood past the gated community where Denham lives. Some of them also attended one of Denham’s mobile district office meetings in Denair earlier in the day. Such meetings happen frequently in communities throughout the district and he attends them when he’s in the district; he did so in Patterson earlier in the month. Staffers handle most of them, though. Aide Pete Butler dutifully took the brunt of anger aimed at his boss during the Denair meeting. On a chair next to him sat a cutout in the shape of a human with the name “Jeff Denham” scrawled across its chest, placed there by an angry constituent who wanted Denham there in cardboard, if not in spirit.

Events in front of his Modesto office on Sisk Road on Friday and Saturday focused on opposing the GOP’s stated goals of eliminating Obamacare and cutting Social Security.

And finally, as of late afternoon Friday, more than 100 people had signed an online petition posted on progressive website MoveOn.Org demanding he host a town hall meeting. Petitioners added comments that included: “You work for me, face your employer like a man.”

“His recent phone call posted live on Facebook did not let most of his constituency participate so adding an in person town hall would make access to our representative more inclusive and democratic.”

And, “Stand up and represent your community, even if that means listening to opposing views #DoYourJob.”

The Democrats, who haven’t held the congressional seat since Dennis Cardoza left office in 2012, now see Denham as vulnerable in 2018.

“He needs to explain his bromance with Trump,” said Patty Hughes, who heads the Democratic Women’s Club of Stanislaus County and worked for weeks to organize the Turlock vigil. “If this is Trump speaking, (Denham) isn’t separating himself from him. He’s frightening people in the district. Denham needs to have a town hall meeting and demonstrate his accountability. He’s missing.”