On Tuesday, September 6th, Paul Ryan spoke at the Whitnall Park Rotary Club in Greenfield, Wisconsin. For what has become the only way for even his constituents to see the Congressman during his summer town halls, tickets were $15. And in what looked like a polar negative of the healthcare town halls of 2009, Ryan was disrupted over and over again by those (paying) attendees. Three were arrested.
One difference: for this private event, taxpayers of Wisconsin footed the bill, as the Rotary Club used Greenfield detectives to provide security for what was essentially a private fundraising event. It's something the police department there said it has never done before.
Meanwhile, Ryan was able to find some humor in it all, mocking the protesters as they were forcibly removed from the room.
Ryan has insisted that the $15 per head events are not fundraisers, adding that those looking to speak with him should attend his office hours. Recently, seven of his constituents held a sit-in at Ryan's Kenosha offices. They were removed by police.
Ryan's spokesman, Kevin Seifert, said: "[Ryan] has no control over the cost of the event any more than he has control over the menu." The $15, it was reasoned, was for the Rotary Club to cover costs, including lunch. One thing the private organization did not provide with that $15? The cost of security.
"There were easily a dozen uniformed officers in the hallway just outside the banquet room waiting and at least six in suits inside the room and spread out along the walls, " said Kelly Gallaher, an activist and Ryan constituent from Racine, who paid $15 to attend and film the luncheon.
Those in suits were detectives from the Greenfield Police Department, confirmed Detective Sgt. Mike Brunner, who was at the event. Brunner told The Awl that six detectives, including himself, provided security for the private event. The Greenfield department has a total of seven detectives, meaning all but one served as security for the event. Brunner told us that while the department has provided detectives for Paul Ryan events in the past, all of those were public meetings. Brunner said he "can't think of any other time we've done it." The only private event the detectives have ever worked security for was something like a Harley-Davidson anniversary party, "where there are tens of thousands in attendance."
Tuesday's Rotary Cub event saw, at most, 150 guests.
Brunner confirmed that three had been arrested and charged with trespassing at a private event, which carries a fine around $30. Additionally, one was charged with resisting arrest.
The police were there before the event started, at the request of the Rotary Club, and, anticipating arrests, the police brought wagons. Greenfield, along with other departments like West Allis, provided an additional 30 to 35 uniformed officers to control a group that the local CBS affiliate estimated at 100 protesters and 75 Ryan supporters (and which Gallaher estimated to be 80 protesters and 30 supporters). Brunner estimates the total department force to be about 58… including the chief.
While none of the six detectives providing security for the event did so on overtime, Brunner confirmed to The Awl that many of the uniformed officers were paid overtime. He guessed that approximately 25 got time-and-a-half.
In 2009, a memo from a FreedomWorks volunteer and co-founder of the group Right Principles named Bob MacGuffie encouraged those attending the summer recess town halls under the banner of the fledgling Tea Party to "rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early" and "rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down. Look for these opportunities before he even takes questions.” Looks like the Ryan attendees finally got MacGuffie's memo.
Of course, FreedomWorks, and other groups like Americans for Prosperity, denied any relationship with MacGuffie, his ilk and their methods. FreedomWorks insisted that it discouraged such confrontation.
But one year after that memo, MacGuffie was a marquee speaker at a Brewster, NY FreedomWorks event alongside its founder and chairman Dick Armey.
Tea Party organizers, it seems, expected the sort of boisterousness on display in Wisconsin this summer. Except it seems they thought it would be their team again. In May, FreedomWorks Vice President of Communications Adam Brandon told HuffPo, "I would expect the August town halls to be the ones that get pretty exciting, in the sense where you're going to have more turnout, and that's mainly because the folks on our side got used to the August town halls."
Brandon did not return our calls for comment on the Ryan event (or the fiscal responsibility of using taxpayer organizations for private security).
Seeing shaky handicam footage of Ryan doggystyling the dais while being repeatedly shouted down by the audience is like bizarre-o-world footage from 2009. That crazy summer featured congressional town halls packed with very vocal protesters who let their reps have it with both barrels. I attended a number of these town halls for North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan. While his were largely civil, if tense, they did occasionally devolve into the behavior on show at Ryan's recent private event. Freedomworks organizers were even helpful enough to send an August Action Kit to prepare me to confront Dorgan.
Interestingly enough, FreedomWorks has already preemptively called Ryan a chicken. A May email to members of Congress from FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe warned to not "bury your head in the sand."
Ryan's last free pubic appearance was in April. (By no means is Ryan's absence abnormal though; the current political climate has made being a pantywaist the norm. A survey by No Labels found that only 44 percent of all Congress scheduled open meetings this recess.)
Kibbe continued, "Republicans must not shy away from this [Medicare] issue. Expect Democrats to attack, but not fighting back will only make it worse. BOLD action is needed."
Unfortunately for Ryan's future in his district, the only bold action he's displayed lately is ridiculing those constituents who disagree with him.
Given the opportunity to take the high road and let security do its thing, or talk smack even as a wall of taxpayer-provided police beef stood between the Congressman and his opposition, Paul Ryan chose the latter, mocking his constituents as they were forced from the room. "What I think is… is unique and exciting about this is Rotarians got the $15 out of them," quipped Ryan as one man was removed.
Kelly Gallaher was floored by Ryan's behavior. Over the years she said she's been to at least 25 to 30 of Ryan's listening sessions in the region and she's never seen him disrespect his opposition so outwardly. "He usually just tap-dances around questions or criticism," she said, noting that Ryan joked to Rotary Club attendees that they should pray for one of the arrested.
Ryan may be increasingly blustery when he has such the bulk of the local police department at his disposal. When he was confronted at a Labor Day parade with his family, he was the far more contrite and zipped-lip Representative described by Gallaher.
Gallaher said Ryan is more emboldened and egotistical than she's ever seen, even as she has watched his support in his district erode, especially with the elderly. It's a development Democratic activists in Wisconsin's 1st congressional district can hardly believe, after long facing the seemingly impossible task of unseating him. For the first time, Ryan, pretty much by his own doing, is maybe—but probably not, but just maybe—vulnerable.
Ryan got the last word in on the senior citizen who disrupted him as the man was pulled from the event by baggy-blazered detectives. "I hope he took his blood pressure medication today," cracked Ryan.
It's a simple joke that takes on a whole new dark tone given his proposed reforms. It's also just one more bit of evidence of his obliviousness in Wisconsin as he becomes a national household name.
Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.