Brad Ellsworth was in Congress only a few weeks when he kicked off a glad-handing February 2007 “listening tour” that took him into grocery stores, senior centers and open town hall meetings.
Often standing inches away from the person he was talking to, a casually dressed Ellsworth roamed the aisles at Wesselman’s Grocery Store in Mount Vernon, Ind., greeting shoppers and making small talk. But the 8th District congressman eventually had to stop the grocery store visits because people began yelling at him. The commotion was disrupting places of business.
By the third year of his four-year career in Congress, he dropped plans to appear in public places in favor of private meetings with constituents and telephone town halls. The country was roiling over the Democratic health care plan that would become Obamacare. Tea party critics accused Democrat Ellsworth of ducking confrontations like the ones that boiled over at congressional town halls across the country. Ellsworth, who did listen to criticism over health care at some public forums, countered that other constituents should be able to speak without being shouted down.
“We’ve seen folks show up (at town hall meetings) who are really just there to disrupt public events,” Ellsworth spokeswoman Liz Farrar told the Courier & Press in August 2009.
Sound familiar? Substitute Democrat Ellsworth for current Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon, and the conservative tea party for the liberal Indivisible Evansville -- and the more things change, the more they stay the same.
With one important caveat: The Democrat and liberal-aligned activists who are now making themselves heard at Bucshon’s public events have made them more treacherous for him with their focus on the use of recording devices. With just a single cellphone, Indivisible Evansville can change the trajectory of Bucshon’s career should he make a game-changing verbal gaffe, contradict a previous statement or even suffer an inconvenient slip of the tongue.
It’s right there in the national Indivisible organization’s guidebook – “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” – which speaks of putting members of Congress in politically compromising positions at town hall meetings and calling them out.
“Record everything! Assign someone in the group to use their smart phone or video camera to record other advocates asking questions and the MoC’s (member of Congress) response. While written transcripts are nice, unfavorable exchanges caught on video can be devastating for MoCs. These clips can be shared through social media and picked up by local and national media.”
Indivisible Evansville’s president said the local group is more interested in establishing an accurate record than embarrassing Bucshon.
Edie Hardcastle said Indivisible Evansville likely will place even more of an emphasis on recording Bucshon. Hardcastle pointed to a March 11 legislative session in Poseyville, Ind., at which Indivisible members shouted at the Republican congressman. Some members of the group have argued that their behavior was not out of line.
“I think it’s been really easy for Congressman Bucshon to say what he wants about how the Poseyville (event) went,” Hardcastle said. “We’ve talked a lot about how we perceived that event and how he perceived it, and I think those two things are very different -- so I think absolutely we’ll be more apt to record things this time so we can document things a little bit better.”
Nicholas LaRowe, a political scientist at the University of Southern Indiana, said the use of social media to record elected officials tests them by forcing them to confront an animal that doesn’t play by the same rules as traditional media.
“It’s a new source of information about that politician outside of the local press, so that’s a threat to what people might know about them or say about them -- coming from a source where they have less control or les control or predictability,” LaRowe said.
Jim Bratten recalls that Tri-State Tea Party, of which he was a leading member in 2009, didn’t see much value in trying to embarrass then-Rep. Ellsworth by recording his public appearances.
Evansville resident Bratten, a former Indiana coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, said the tea party’s objective with Ellsworth always was to show that his claims to be a conservative Democrat were false. Ellsworth, president at Vectren Energy Delivery-South, no longer makes public remarks about his congressional career. When he was in Congress, he called himself a political moderate concerned with representing the sentiment of the 8th District.
Bratten said recording Ellsworth in public would not have served the tea party group’s purpose.
“(Ellsworth’s) voting record is his voting record,” he said. “All you had to do was go in the (U.S.) House of Representatives and look it up. That was what we were interested in.”
The sentiment apparently wasn’t unanimous.
“A couple of our members brought it up. They wanted to record him,” Bratten said. “What’s the point? We were concerned about what he voted for and against when he was representing us.”