On what’s normally a vacation week, four local high school students were hard at work organizing Town Hall for our Lives meetings around the area. The meetings, inspired by the Parkland student movement, are opportunities for students to talk to their elected officials about gun control and gun violence.
Chaz Nuttycombe, a senior at Hanover High School, put together the most recent event this past Saturday at Libbie Mill Library in Henrico, part of Congressman Dave Brat’s 7th Congressional District. He invited Brat, but the congressman declined to attend via an email sent to one of Nuttycombe’s co-organizers. “It looked like a form email,” he said, describing the email as one that characterized past town halls as rude and disrespectful.
“I was willing to work with him to make sure it would be a civil event,” Nuttycombe said. He even went to Brat’s D.C. office to invite him in person, an experience he described as disappointing. “I went to his office, I was polite. His staff was friendly, but it was clear from the looks on their faces that he wouldn’t attend.”
After Brat declined, Nuttycombe invited the Democratic challengers, former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger and 25-year Marine veteran Dan Ward. “That’s the etiquette. You invite your representative and if they decline you invite the competition,” he said. Both accepted his invitation, joining the 80 or so people in attendance.
Ward described the focus on school safety and gun control as central to his campaign. “We were the first to back the assault weapon ban,” he said. Ward said he’s running to address shortcomings in political leadership, adding,“We’ve abdicated our responsibility as the government to the NRA, and it’s been disastrous.”
He characterized Brat’s tenure in office as symptomatic of what he called a bigger problem; representatives who worry more about re-election than about serving constituents. “Everyone is taking the political temperature on issues that are clearly right or wrong, and we need people of courage to take the moral positions,” he said.
Reached by phone, Spanberger was full of praise for the students, and said it was an easy decision to attend their town hall. “Absolutely. It’s incredible how engaged and involved these local students are, I’m happy to be part of anything they are putting together.” She described the students as polite, mature, and “impressively well-organized.”
Both of the candidates thought Brat should have been in attendance, and pointed to what Ward called a pattern of not showing up. “That’s who he is. It’s his biggest problem, that he doesn’t come out and talk to his constituents.”
Spanberger said the problem was bigger than this meeting, but thought the absence was especially notable. “Of all the events that he hasn’t attended and all of the times he hasn’t made himself available, I think this one was particularly disappointing,” she said, noting that Brat hasn’t held a town hall since last spring.
While school safety was the focus, Nuttycombe also asked the candidates to sign a pledge to hold at least four town hall meetings a year. Both signed.
“We’ve done 79 meet and greets in the last nine months. Four town halls sounds easy,” Spanberger said about the request, before adding in a more sober tone, “I think it’s only fair to make sure that we’re accessible to every county in the district.”
Also in attendance was Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a high school teacher first elected to represent the 72nd district this past November. “I think it’s important to show them support, and I agree with their cause,” he said about attending the meeting.
He said the meeting was important, but stressed that elected officials need to also work to address the more common incidents of gun violence across the nation instead of just the tragic outliers.
“My fear is that we get too narrow, we start talking about bulletproof glass and arming teachers,” he said, “but we should be looking at the front-end and asking how we can make our communities healthier and safer.”
Like Spanberger and Ward, VanValkenburg found the student work encouraging. “We’re already seeing a shift in the dialogue and the narrative, and the organizers should feel optimistic and motivated,” he said, adding, “But it is early days, people have to keep that momentum up.”
Asked to weigh-in on Brat’s absence, he described it as a missed opportunity for the congressman to hear from his constituents, adding, “Sometimes [town halls] can be unruly or unfriendly terrain, but as he noted when he ran against Eric Cantor, that’s part of your responsibility.”
RVA Mag tried to reach the congressman to ask him about his absence. As with the last time we reached out to his office, we received no answers to our specific questions, however, his communications director Mitchell Hailstone only provided what he called ‘background’ on Brat. The short response described him as a loving father who is concerned about school violence, and noted that he held “a roundtable discussion with school security officers, mental health experts, superintendents of schools, law enforcement officials and school board members,” which he noted was not covered in RVA Mag but in the Culpeper Star Exponent.
According to that newspaper, Brat proposed no specific legislation to address trauma, but was in favor of placing professional security at the front doors of schools and addressing mental health issues through a “holistic approach.”
Nuttycombe wasn’t surprised by Brat’s absence at the student-run event, he said, noting that he wrote two speeches; one for if Brat attended, and one for if he didn’t. He described the absence as proof that the congressman is out of touch with voters, saying, “He’s still voting like the tea party insurgent he ran as when he beat Cantor, and he hasn’t realized that the district has become more moderate. His constituents want sensible regulations on gun ownership, not someone who takes big donations from the NRA.”
Despite the lack of support from the district congressman, Nuttycombe is moving forward with his work. His next step is a town hall with Rep. Donald McEachin and Sen. Tim Kaine on Apr 21 at the Adult Alternative Program, an ex-offender re-entry program in Richmond, and a major rally the day before on Brown’s Island connected to the national walkout starting at 12 AM.
The rally will take place at noon with music, speeches, and a march to the State Capitol where Gov. Ralph Northam will speak following student leaders speeches from the steps of the state building.