Rep. Jason Altmire, D- Pa. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
By David Skolnick
At the height of the health-care debate, then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson said every day he’d receive more than 1,000 e-mails, telephone calls, letters and visits to his Washington, D.C., office from people angry about his support of the bill.
So angry, in some cases, that Wilson, a Democrat from St. Clairsville, said he felt threatened.
“I was really concerned during the campaign by the lack of respect and lack of civility,” he said Monday. “It was scary and hurtful.”
Wilson’s statements come after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona, was shot in the head Saturday by a gunman who opened fire outside a grocery store. Six people were killed in the event. Giffords is among the 14 people wounded.
“I was reluctant to do the kinds of meetings [Giffords] was doing,” Wilson said. “I had fear in me because we heard people were packing guns at these meetings. That concerned me.”
Wilson said people would “pound” on his D.C. office door and “scream” threats at him about his support of the health-care bill.
“If it’s an elected official, people feel they can say anything,” he said.
Like Giffords, Wilson was among the 20 incumbent Democrats with crosshairs, as if from a gun sight, on the political action committee website of Sarah Palin, the 2008 failed Republican vice presidential candidate. A Palin PAC spokeswoman has told several media outlets that the crosshairs were not intended to be gun sights.
Wilson, who lost to Republican Bill Johnson of Poland, doesn’t blame the Palin crosshairs for the Arizona incident, but said, “It certainly promoted it.”
Johnson said he strongly believes that it’s “both shameful and irresponsible” for “someone to politicize this event and say it’s about politics. I don’t see this as a political issue.”
Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, doesn’t own a handgun or have a license to carry. When asked if he’d consider getting a handgun and a license to carry, he said, “Who knows? Who knows? I certainly did not anticipate this.”
The tragic incident won’t impact Johnson meeting with his constituents.
“We’ll be cautious and keep our eyes and ears open,” he said. “I certainly am not taking it for granted that someone could be out there wanting to kill me. But it won’t change anything I do.”
Also on Palin’s crosshairs list was ex-U.S. Rep. John Boccieri of Alliance, D-16th, who lost his re-election bid in the November election.
“Words have meaning and they also have consequences,” he said. “You need to be responsible, and she was not being responsible doing that. We shouldn’t be amping up the rhetoric” about violence.
Boccieri, who also voted in favor of the health-care bill, said the rhetoric has become more dangerous and angry towards politicians since he was first elected in 2000 as a state representative in Mahoning County.
“I don’t think politicians should avoid being out in public and being with their constituents,” he said. But they need to be careful, Boccieri said.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, said he received several threats, particularly related to the health-care bill.
He canceled a public meeting on the bill in March at the Youngstown Community Health Center on Wick Avenue, concerned about the lack of security there. A month later, Ryan’s staff called police after receiving what they believed to be a suspicious letter in the mail. The envelope contained an angry letter about Ryan’s support of the health-care bill.
Threats to his staff were coming in as recently as a couple of months ago, Ryan said.
“No one should have to die or get shot to serve their district,” he said. “We’ve let our guard down a bit since health care and some didn’t take [threats] seriously even during health-care” debate.
Ryan said people are surprised when he tells them he has no security.
“Now, after this incident the whole world knows members of Congress don’t have security,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll curtail public events. You can’t stop doing your job and people want to see you. But some people have become more brazen and bold. There’s clearly not respect for politicians. We live in a very violent society. ”
This incident may keep people away from events, Ryan said.
Ryan said he’s considering having a member of his staff or a police officer at his public meetings watching the crowd.
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless, Pa., D-4th, who’s also received threatening e-mails and phone calls, said he will probably ask local police agencies to have at least one officer at his public events.
“I don’t feel my safety was ever at risk, but during the health-care time you do get threats and that causes concern,” he said. “One thing I’ve seen is the contempt [some] folks have for public officials. The rules of public discourse and civility doesn’t exist for member of Congress.”
Freshman U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly of Butler, Pa., R-3rd, will not change his public-meeting schedule because of the Giffords incident.
“We have appropriate measures in place to ensure our district offices and public events in the district are safe,” said Brad Moore, his spokesman.