Rep. Joe Walsh gets occupied

On Capitol Hill, the Tea Party leader succumbs to a radical demand: He actually talks to a jobless constituent

Published December 7, 2011 5:24PM (EST)

Protesters in the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday.    (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Protesters in the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

As I sat there with my laptop in a hallway of the Cannon House Office Building of the U.S. Capitol, I saw the gaping eyes of Rep. Joe Walsh, Republican of Illinois and leader of the Tea Party. "I think that's him," I murmured to Micah Uetricht, a Chicago-based journalist. The congressman stared at us -- about a dozen activists, journalists and unemployed constituents encamped outside his congressional office -- for all of a second, and then took off in the opposite direction, his aide in tow.

It's not every day you see unemployed constituents and economic justice activists in the halls of congressional office buildings in Washington, D.C. -- corridors typically reserved for their most common inhabitants: politicians, staffers and, of course, lobbyists. But a real live unemployed person? The sight scared Rep. Walsh right down the stairwell.

Yesterday was no ordinary day in the nation's capital. More than a thousand activists and constituents came together for a "Take Back the Capitol" action, as 99 or more delegations descended on congressional offices, demanding meetings with members of Congress to call on them to support jobs legislation and battle income inequality.

Not all members of Congress fled from these meetings, as Walsh did. At least three were courteous.  Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican -- who famously told irate constituents to hold their "own town hall" earlier this year --  tweeted that he had a "positive discussion" about the economy with Occupy activists. Duffy even posted a Facebook picture in which he posed smiling with them. Wisconsin's freshman Republican Sen. Ron Johnson held a meeting that lasted more than half an hour with protesters; Rep. Virginia Foxx of Virginia also met with activists.

Things did not go as smoothly in Walsh's office. The volatile Walsh, elected in 2010, is perhaps best known for boycotting the State of the Union address and refusing to pay more than $100,000 in child support payments for his four children.  His chief of staff Justin Rosh said that the congressman was busy and offered to meet with us instead. The protesters showed no interest in that. Rosh said Walsh could come back to meet with them in the afternoon. "I think we'll stay," said one protester. Rosh shrugged. With that, the occupation of Walsh's office began.

We arranged ourselves so as not to disrupt the office's normal business. One occupier was Andy Gebel, who had been unemployed for almost two and a half years -- a victim of the Great Recession caused largely by the very banks Walsh defends. In an outburst last month, Walsh told constituents, "Don’t blame banks, and don’t blame the marketplace for the mess we’re in right now! I am tired of hearing that crap!"

Gebel was rather calmer.

“I’d like to see some kind of commitment from him to not cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” he told me. “And get some sort of jobs program going and boost the economy.”

One activist, Rebecca Green of Stand Up Chicago, started a lengthy discussion with a Walsh staffer about income inequality. As Green showed her charts of income inequality over the years, the staffer agreed that there was a lot wrong with the economy for people to be angry about.

The 24-year-old Green, who got her start protesting a 32 percent fee hike at the University of California, Berkeley, recently moved out to Illinois to be a professional organizer.

"We wanted to talk to him about our stories so he can have a better idea of what's going on in the lives of his constituents," she told me. "So he can start representing the 99 percent instead of the 1 percent."

Staffers told us that Walsh -- who had entered his private office earlier without saying a word -- would likely be able to meet us at 3 p.m. Yet as the time passed, he was nowhere to be seen. Finally, at around 3:20, Walsh darted out of a side door. Uetricht, Green and I took chase, hoping to catch the congressman. But as he took off down a set of stairs, we gave up.

"We have decaf coffee!" I shouted after him, referencing another famous outburst by Walsh earlier this year. After haranguing a group of constituents to cease their complaints about Wall Street, the overwrought congressman had suddenly asked for a cup of coffee. "We have decaf," they replied brightly.

As the day drew to a close, we remained camped both inside and outside Walsh's office. We were told he might not come back at all. But then he appeared, again quickly rushing by and slamming the door behind him. Activists marched into his office and decided to vote on whether to stay. They decided to leave. Yet as we were about to exit, Gebel met with Rosh and a short private meeting with Walsh was agreed upon.

Afterward, Gebel emerged and explained that Walsh basically did not agree with us – a finding that did not surprise. Green the activist was content to claim a victory in the simple fact of getting a meeting. As the protesters marched out with their heads held high, chanting, "This is what democracy looks like!" it was hard to deny they had won something. They had forced Joe Walsh to do something he obviously preferred not to do: talk face-to-face with a member of the 99 percent.

By Zaid Jilani

Zaid Jilani is a Syracuse University graduate student and freelance writer. Follow him @zaidjilani.

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Joe Walsh Occupy Wall Street Take Back The Capitol