Toomey talks (and says he listens) -- but action would be better

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U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).

When I tell Pat Toomey that he seems hotter these days (and not in a good way) than during his hotly contested, nationally watched 2016 reelection race, he says, “I’m aware of that. It’s quite extraordinary.”

Why?

Well, Pennsylvania’s GOP senator is raising ire over his responsiveness, or lack thereof, to questions and opinions of constituents.

People can’t get through to him. People don’t think he wants them to.

As I wrote last week, Toomey’s phones, faxes, and email boxes in Washington and seven district offices are overwhelmed with citizen contact.

It’s about Toomey’s support for President Trump’s pledge to ax Obamacare, about qualified support of the travel ban, and especially about his enthusiastic support of cabinet picks: “His nominees have been terrific.”

How much contact is Toomey getting? Ten times normal levels. And protests outside his offices. And a petition for an in-person town hall meeting.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

After last week’s column, even my emails and phone calls from readers hit levels far higher than usual. Most reflect frustration and anger at Toomey. Some suggest Toomey switched off his phones.

So I reach out to the senator.

“I absolutely understand their frustration and anger,” Toomey tells me, “but the last thing we would ever do is turn off our phone. … I want to hear from people.”

His staff says his offices aren’t equipped to handle the volume of calls. And he refers to organized national efforts to dog Republicans.

One such effort, Indivisible, “a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda,” urges citizens to contact Trump supporters in Congress. But many readers who couldn’t reach Toomey told me they acted on their own and never heard of Indivisible.

Toomey concedes that people from “both categories,” acting alone or prompted, are involved. He encourages contact through his website, Toomey.senate.gov.

What about constituent views?

“I like all of my opinions to be influenced by constituents,” he says, “but it’s not my job to do a survey of Pennsylvania to see which way I should vote.”

What about a town hall meeting?

“I did a lot in my first term" -  14 in six years, according to his staff; all in rural counties - "and we’ll do town hall meetings,” though he won’t say when or where.

When I ask why he’s never held one in Philadelphia, he says, “I’m not sure that’s true.”

(It is.)

“It might be true.”  

(It is.)

“But no particular reason," he says, apparently conceding the point. "I get to Philadelphia quite often” for other events.

He also says that “multiple times a day” he meets in his office with constituents “from all walks of life.”

Complaints of non-responsiveness from politicians certainly aren’t restricted to Toomey. Why is he on a hot seat now?

Well, he’s generally good at keeping a majority of loud voices on either end of the political spectrum at bay. He won reelection, for example, by neither endorsing nor rejecting Trump -- soft spine, maybe, but smart politics in Pennsylvania.

So postelection, his support of Trump, and especially controversial cabinet picks Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos, likely caught some voters by surprise and triggered some loud voices.

Also, when Toomey broke with his party over guns after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut, he was cast as more politically independent than he’s acting now.

And there’s clearly an effort to create a liberal version of the 2009 “Tea Party” movement: energized grassroots opposition to one-party rule in Washington.

Still, Toomey can get off the hot seat by expanding his outreach and responsiveness and by showing up in front of citizens.

With unease, unrest and uncertainty now the norm in politics, such efforts, handled properly, could be calming – for the public and the process.