At meeting without MacArthur, constituents say they aren't paid protesters

U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (left) talks to Ohio Gov. John Kasich at MacArthur's campaign headquarters in Mount Holly on Sept. 9, 2016.

A few hundred people gathered in Marlton on Wednesday night to voice a variety of concerns – from the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act to environmental contamination and President Trump's attacks on the press. But many had the same message for their Republican congressman, Tom MacArthur, who didn’t attend.

“We need to make a statement, whether he’s here or not,” said Rob Schumacher of Moorestown, who said the meeting in the DeMasi Elementary School auditorium was the first such event he had attended. “It’s not OK that the Republicans are saying they’re all paid protesters.”

“I am not a paid protester” was a common refrain as people took the microphone at the event, dubbed a citizens’ town hall.

MacArthur had been invited to the meeting, organized by a South Jersey NOW chapter and New Jersey Citizen Action. Instead, he instead hosted his own “town hall” – via telephone. He answered 15 questions over an hour, but without any follow-ups, crowd reaction, or face-to-face interaction.

With activism swelling in the early weeks of Trump’s presidency, such events have been a popular outlet for Republicans throughout the region trying to interact with constituents without the drama of potential protests.

One caller asked about what he described as "the 800-pound gorilla" in the room – MacArthur’s lack of public town halls. 

“Outside organizers are trying to take over those meetings and use them for their own purposes. If it was just my constituents in a discussion, in a debate even, with plenty of disagreement, I would welcome that ... but that’s not what has been happening all over the country,” MacArthur said.

He accused Indivisible, a group that has advised activists on how to pressure members of Congress, and other organizers  he did not specify  of instructing protesters in how to embarrass lawmakers and create moments that made for damaging videos.

MacArthur said he had found more benefit from private sit-downs in recent days with some Burlington County-based protesters, a local group representing Muslims, and one local Democratic committee.

“Yes, a Republican congressman dropping in to a meeting of local Democrats to talk with them about some very serious concerns they had,” MacArthur said in a recent Facebook post. “We didn't yell or point fingers. We talked honestly and respectfully.”

At the start of the meeting in Marlton, Eileen Hill warned attendees: “No booing.” Don’t give MacArthur an excuse to skip a future meeting, she said.

A retired doctor who lives in Mount Laurel, Hill told the crowd she hadn’t known who her congressman was six weeks ago. “I heard about Indivisible on The Rachel Maddow Show, and the rest is history,” she said.

She and other activists – some amateurs, others professionals – spent 75 minutes addressing the crowd on different issues, including the Affordable Care Act, the environment, and challenges facing the working poor.

Maura Collinsgru, the health-care program director of New Jersey Citizen Action, rallied attendees by asking questions – should the Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act? (“No,” the crowd responded, thrusting sheets of red paper into the air.) After the series of speakers, people lined up at a microphone to ask the not-present congressman questions, which organizers planned to deliver to him in a recording.

A number noted their inexperience. One woman, describing herself as a “little 69-year-old lady from Forked River,” said it was her first time speaking in public. “I paid for my own gas in that car I drove today,” she said.

Others spoke about the need to organize ahead of the next election. “If you think this is a show, wait until 2018,” said James Alesi of Delran.

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.