'Citizens' town hall' takes another dig at Sen. John Neely Kennedy

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The questions fell like hail on the impassive white face of a cardboard cutout meant to represent Sen. John Neely Kennedy, who was not present for a "citizen's town hall" hosted April 19 at First Unitarian Universalist Church by the New Orleans and Metairie chapters of progressive organization Indivisible.

At the event, which was meant to spotlight a perceived lack of responsiveness from the Louisiana freshman senator's office, speakers took the mic to pose inquiries to the mock Kennedy, who rested opaquely in a cardboard "office" reminiscent of Lucy's psychiatric clinic in the "Charlie Brown" comics.

A few of the speakers' numerous, pointed questions:

"You and your party voted to sell our private information to large corporations. ... How does your vote in favor of selling our personal information help your Louisiana constituents?"

"What are you going to do [to preserve] safe and legal abortions for women that need it? Cutting Planned Parenthood ain't gonna cut it."

"I want to know what you're going to do to protect our wetlands, our crawfish and our storm protection from the Bayou Bridge Pipeline."

"We know that you voted to deny 24 million people health care. My question to you is, what would Jesus do?"

If you hadn't been following politics over the past several months, you'd be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, united event participants. In a crowd of between 100-150 people, speakers voiced wide-ranging concerns about police brutality, ICE deportations (including the deportation of a DACA recipient), equal pay for women, the preservation of scientific funding, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Affordable Care Act, coastal restoration, the Trump administration's budget plan and more.

But the main thread cropped up again and again, winding its way through questions about a multitude of issues: a perception of corruption and incompetence in the White House, particularly regarding the president's refusal to divest from his business interests and disclose his assets; and Senator Kennedy's perceived complicity in what many described as a reprehensible ethical morass.

"With Trump having a 34 percent approval rating, I'm wondering when [Kennedy is] going to decide [he's] hitched [his] horse to the wrong wagon," event organizer and Indivisible NOLA co-founder Joyce Vansean said.

Vansean says the lack of response from the senator's office has been frustrating. Repeated calls inviting the senator to town halls and meetings received a rote response along the lines of "thank you for your feedback." Both Metairie and New Orleans Indivisible chapters each dedicated an entire day to calling the senator, to no avail.

"We really wanted to give him the opportunity to plan his own [town hall]," she said. "You write letters, you get not response. You call, you get no response."

Scott Cornelius, who leads the Baton Rouge chapter of the Indivisible organization, was able to make contact with a Kennedy staffer regarding a proposed town hall in the capital. But even with the offer of a changed time and location to accommodate the senator's schedule, a neutral moderator, or the presence of a staffer (rather than the senator himself), the senator and his aides did not appear at a similar event held recently near Baton Rouge.

Cornelius says he'd rather the senator host his own town hall, but didn't see any other option for constituents to speak in a public forum.

"I'd really prefer [him to host]. I don't like putting on these events," he said.

This is becoming a recurring theme for Kennedy specifically, who became the target of a "milk carton" protest in early March when he failed to open offices in the state promptly after his election. He's part of an unwelcome national trend of congressional representatives finding reason to avoid the people in their districts, and he's also falling short compared to Sen. Bill Cassidy, who at least held a recent town hall. A recent Gambit story found Cassidy's office has been somewhat receptive to constituents in general and Indivisible in particular.

"If [Kennedy] doesn't start meeting with his constituents, he's going to get kicked out of that office before he gets moved in," Jordan Soyka, an English teacher who attended the event, joked.

A sense of indignation was common in the crowd. Speaking mostly to object to proposed funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts, the artist Jebney Lewis tacked on a stern warning for the senator.

"If you can't show up to a town hall meeting ... don't even think about showing up to our crawfish boils, our second lines, our festivals," he said.

Others were unsurprised at Kennedy's failure to appear or respond. Neither Karen Adams or Mickey Eagan, both Metairie residents, expected him to show up to hear their concerns about health care, reproductive rights and, in Eagan's case, what she sees as excessive funding directed toward the military. But Eagan feels continued pressure, especially as events are covered by media, may have some effect on the senator over time.

"You may not listen to us, but you're going to hear us," she said.

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