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Protesters rally in Clayton against Trump policies

Tim Roth, (left) from Creve Coeur, brought his fourteen-month-old daughter, Areka Roth, to a protest on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in downtown Clayton. Roth said he wanted to get his daughter started early, but Areka didn't seem to like all of the noise. Several hundred protesters gathered in front of the office of Sen. Roy Blunt at Bonhomme Avenue and S. Hanley Road to protest the policies of President Donald Trump. Photo by J.B. Forbes,

WASHINGTON • Republican St. Louis-area members of Congress have avoided the raucous town hall meetings that many of their colleagues around the country have confronted this week.

Some have had “tele-town” halls, in which constituents are invited to participate via telephone. Some took congressional trips. Some say they prefer to have smaller meetings.

All have avoided the media clips of angry protesters confronting Republicans over the prospective repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and other issues.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was on a congressional trip to Europe during this week’s break. Protesters, some carrying “Where’s Roy” signs, picketed his office in Clayton Tuesday.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, has been having small meetings in his district.

“The congressman prefers one-on-one or small group meetings instead,” Shimkus spokesman Jordan Haverly said. “He’s been doing both over the district work period.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, had a tele-town hall last week, in which about 7,500 participated.

The calls allow Davis “to connect his constituents with other congressional leaders,” his spokeswoman Ashley Phelps said, and “to provide helpful insight into timely issues like repealing and replacing Obamacare. Congressman Davis has always done tele-town halls and will continue to do them.”

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, issued a statement saying she has had “several tele-town halls, with tens of thousands of constituents in my district, and [I] find them invaluable to learning more about their needs and opinions.”

She added: “I plan to host several in the near future, so if you live in Missouri’s 2nd District and have thoughts on how we can fix Obamacare, because it absolutely needs to be fixed, cut down on government intrusion, help re-build jobs and discuss how I can be a better representative, stay tuned because I’ll be calling you soon.”

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, blamed protesters elsewhere for distorting the process.

“In-person town hall meetings have been derailed across the country in an effort to disrupt the honest conversation that representatives need to have with their constituents,” Bost spokesman George O’Connor said.

He said Bost had hosted smaller meetings with health care professionals at two hospitals in Southern Illinois, as well as with farmers, students at Murphysboro High School and a dozen individual constituents in his district offices.

Michael Stark, a real estate agent from Camdenton, Mo., said he listened in on a tele-town hall Wednesday night conducted by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.

A Democrat, Stark said he questioned whether they were a good use of tax dollars and was upset when Luetkemeyer did not push back on “crazy” questions from some callers, such as whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions would prosecute Hillary Clinton. That was a reference to Clinton’s use of a personal email account while she was secretary of state.

“I do think they should do them in person,” Stark said. “The thing about the phone calls are not only are they obnoxious, they lack any ‘personalness’ at all. To me the town halls on the phone seem phony, they seem staged.”

Luetkemeyer spokeswoman Kristina Weger said that “listening to and responding to his constituents are top priorities for the congressman.”

She said Luetkemeyer had had more than 1,000 meetings in his district over his eight years in Congress and “takes live questions on radio shows that air throughout central and eastern Missouri every month.” She said Luetkemeyer’s offices responded to more than 5,000 constituent queries in January.

“Blaine also frequently holds tele-town hall meetings, including one last night, where he answers live questions from constituents and roughly 8,000 callers are on the line at any given time,” Weger said Thursday.

John Barack, 66, a retiree from St. Louis who worked in sales and marketing, has been among those appearing outside Blunt’s office to ask for a town hall.

“I assume he doesn’t want to hear a bunch of people complain about the Republican claim that they are going to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” Barack, a self-described “knee-jerk” liberal, said.

But decrying a level of discourse in general he described as “awful” and “coarse,” Barack also said he understood why some members of Congress, after seeing colleagues shouted down in town hall events, might not want to have their own.

“Absolutely, I understand that,” Barack said. “But I heard somebody today say, ‘Do your job.’ That’s part of it. The need to put country before party.”

As a Democrat whose party is not in power, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill has not been the target of pickets as Blunt has. But groups favoring President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court are running advertising in Missouri urging McCaskill to support Gorsuch.

The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group favoring Gorsuch’s confirmation, said it had spent about $1 million on advertising urging McCaskill to support the nomination, part of a $10 million buy nationally to pressure Democratic senators in states Trump won.

“I’m not sure if she’s aware, but she certainly won’t be swayed by outside special-interest ads,” her spokesman, John LaBombard, said.

McCaskill was on a fact-finding tour of the Mexican border earlier this week, although she conducted a listening session in Hillsboro on Friday for people covered by the failing Central States Pension Fund.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said he planned to schedule a town hall “on protecting all of the progress that the Affordable Care Act has achieved in the near future.”

He said he had had meetings this week in St. Louis, University City and Maplewood.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said earlier this week that protesters disrupting town halls were part of an organized “Astroturf” effort by liberal activists. Critics said that underestimated the worry about the repeal of Obamacare and other issues.

The liberal Progressive Chance Campaign Committee sent out on Thursday a fundraising email to its 1 million members and urged them to show up at GOP members’ town halls.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.