WASHINGTON • Weeks before her close friend, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, was shot on a high school baseball field Wednesday morning, Rep. Ann Wagner reported to Capitol Police five death threats made against her this spring, Wagner says.
It’s part of what Wagner, R-Ballwin, called the “hate and vitriol” that has infected public life. She said she decided to go public this week after seeing a 23-year-old aide in her district office sobbing after an abusive phone call, and after watching children in her Ballwin neighborhood scrub away chalk outlines of dead bodies that had been drawn on the driveway of her home.
The children replaced them, she said, with happy faces.
Wagner laid out the threats she said that she and her staff experienced over several weeks this spring in a private House of Representatives caucus of Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday, hours after Scalise and four others had been wounded in a hailstorm of bullets from a man from Belleville.
“What I am hoping, I guess, is if there is anything positive that can come from this is that there will be a ratcheting down of the negativity and the hate and the vitriol and that we can come together and that we will all feel safer, both while we are here in the halls of Congress and when we are back home,” Wagner said in an interview.
“The concern is palpable. It’s not me, it’s the constituents who have called also who are anxious and concerned. How do they explain this to their children?”
She said that in the caucus meeting, she received positive responses from Democrats and Republicans when “I encouraged my colleagues to be sure that they are reaching out to law enforcement, to be sure that they are talking about whatever it is that they are going through with their constituents and each other.”
She said that protesters have been “vandalizing my home, showing up with masks and gravestones, and laying down on my driveway and drawing chalk outlines of dead bodies. Picketing my church at 8 and 10 o’clock Mass.”
Many are protesting her vote on the Republican health care plans, Wagner said, but the list of grievances “runs the gamut.”
Some of it may be fueled by disappointment about the 2016 election, she said, much from “irresponsible misinformation” she said has been shoveled on social media and elsewhere.
The protests have gone on for some time, she said, but she felt things had “crossed the line” when she watched as “kids in my cul de sac filled a cooler with soapy water, (put it in) a little red wagon, came down to scrub the chalk marks of dead bodies off my driveway.”
Then, when she saw the young staffer sobbing, “I said, enough is enough. … We have got to talk about it.”
Wagner said she understands and invites civil dialogue and disagreement and knows that it comes with public service in an age when any voice can join the coarse chorus on the internet.
She has been criticized for not having public town halls, but she said her district office is always open to constituents, and that last week she met with a parade of them there, ranging from a foster mother concerned about Medicaid to a 12-year-old boy who wanted to talk about malaria nets.
“My name is on the door, my name is on the yard sign when I run,” she said. “But my neighbors and the little kids in my cul de sac, my parishioners, my very young staff that are all 20-nothing-year-olds, my constituents and my family — I worry about them.
“Everyone is anxious, and when I talked to my colleagues about it (in the closed caucus) I said, ‘It is time for us to move away from this hatred and this vitriolic rhetoric.’ ”
Wagner is among many in Congress reassessing their safety in the wake of the shooting.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Ill., was taking batting practice at home plate when the gunman opened fire behind the third-base dugout Wednesday morning, scarcely 50 feet away.
He said that trauma — of seeing Scalise “motionless” on the ground, others wounded, others running for their lives — has forever changed his approach in public.
“I take for granted what I consider safe environments, not only in Washington but back home,” Davis said, hours after the shooting. “But I know I personally will be more cognizant of and likely make decisions based upon (safety) … going through what I went through today.
“Never thought I’d go to baseball practice and have to dodge bullets,” he said.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, Ill., who represents the district where the killer lived, said he has had threats throughout his public career.
It began shortly after he was elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1994, he said, when the FBI and Illinois police told him that he and his family were being put under protective surveillance because of a threat they had learned of in a plea-bargain agreement in a St. Louis criminal case.
Someone had been hired to beat him up “but not kill me” with an ax handle, Bost said, and he was given a detailed description of the man who was allegedly hired to do that, and the truck he drove. The threat never became reality, Bost said, but it was his first reminder that “Dorothy, this isn’t Kansas anymore.”
He is an ex-Marine, and Bost said he relies on threat assessment training he learned in the service every time he is in a public setting. He said that the threat environment for those in public office has grown worse as social media has become coarser.
“The old Marine in me has been working overtime even before this,” he said, saying he is constantly in “situational awareness” mode.
“So when I am in a crowd and talking to people, I watch their hands, I watch their movements,” he said. “You can’t see 180 degrees around you at all times, but you try to be observant.
“But there are times you let it down,” Bost said. “Who would have thought at ball practice?”
The team captains of the Congressional Baseball Game that took place here Thursday night said they did not believe that the shooting would push members of Congress to ask for more regular protection in public.
“I’ve never felt unsafe, here or in Pittsburgh,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., the Democrats’ team captain.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he regretted a breakdown in civility overall, and said increasingly he has felt that members of Congress were no longer being treated as people but as targets of people’s anger. But, referencing the Civil War, he also said that “we shot at each other for two-and-a-half, three-and-a-half years,” making the point that American political history has been marked by violence.
“I feel safe, but you know I am an adult and I made a conscious decision to run for Congress,” Barton said. “Nobody puts a gun to our head and says we have to run. It’s different with your family.”