After his controversial Helsinki summit, President Trump was panned by Democrats and Republicans alike for seeming to side with Russia over American intelligence agencies. In Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, some constituents wondered why their congressman, Rep. Dave Brat, didn’t add his voice to the mix.
Some went beyond wondering.
An anonymous artist created a cartoon picturing Brat as the eponymous character hiding in the pages of a “Where’s Waldo” book. Others, like Adam Short, went the route of direct action. Short, who returned to his native Virginia after a few years living in Washington, D.C., hosted “a vigil for Dave Brat’s conscience,” a protest in collaboration with the progressive policy group MoveOn and area Democrats, last Wednesday.
“Someone needs to step in and stop what’s, essentially, a takeover by the US government of the Russian mob. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it looks pretty straightforward,” Short said, discussing his motivation.
I just want to hear him say that he’s not working with Russian trolls to subvert democracy.
Like other constituents, Short said he felt Brat wasn’t accessible. “I’d like to hear Dave Brat say he’s against this,” he said, talking about the question of Russian influence in the White House and allegations of election meddling. “I saw him blame Obama for some vague thing. I believe the people who tell me Dave Brat is a good person, but I just want to hear him say that he’s not working with Russian trolls to subvert democracy.”
While Brat did issue a tweet stating that the “United States should stand unequivocally opposed to a foreign government meddling in our elections,” he immediately followed it up with further tweets redirecting the issue to President Obama’s time in office. His office did not return emails asking for comment.
Some 100 people joined Short for the protest, held at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night. Among them were Melissa Thomas McKenney, who organizes with other local progressives as part of the group Together We Will Henrico. McKenney helped plan the event, and is a stalwart supporter of Abigail Spanberger, Brat’s Democratic challenger.
McKenney joined the effort for two reasons: a feeling that Brat isn’t available to constituents, and concerns over Brat’s statements on Russian interference. In light of mainstream Republicans, like Rep. Will Hurd, a congressman from Texas and former CIA operative who wrote a letter to the New York Times alleging that Trump is being manipulated by the KGB, she questioned Brat’s reticence on the Helsinki summit.
“I don’t think it’s unsafe for a politician to come out and say that what Trump expressed in that meeting is inappropriate,” McKenney said. “We should trust and value our intelligence agency. We know that Russia has meddled with United States politics, and we’d really just love somebody who would think critically about these things and stand up for their constituents instead of Donald Trump.”
For McKenney, that “somebody” is Spanberger, the former CIA operative and Democratic candidate for the 7th District congressional race. Short agrees with her that Spanberger would be a better representative, but he’s worried that voting isn’t enough.
“Even if Democrats take both houses, which is about as likely as a coin flip, there’s still not much you can do about this,” he said, referring to Trump’s apparent coziness with Putin. “There’s no point in waiting for the Democrats because we don’t know what they’ll be able to do. We need to do something about this as a population. It’s not enough just to win the elections.”
Other constituents, who weren’t willing to speak on the record, told me that the biggest issue for them was the lack of access to Brat, and what they described as a record of not taking moral stands. “We don’t think he wants to make a statement [on Helsinki],” one man told me. “It took him more than a day to come out against [Trump calling the neo-nazis in Charlottesville] ‘very good people.’”
Short, like all the critics I spoke to, described himself as “to the left” of Brat. He said nothing could make him a supporter, ”That ship sailed a long time ago.” However, he thinks Brat has a responsibility to speak to his constituents, regardless of party. “I would love to talk to Dave Brat, but the reality is, when people ask him about his policies, they aren’t shown any respect if they aren’t already his supporters.”
Constituents who feel neglected by Brat will have another chance to reach their representative. Together We Will Henrico plans to protest at his Glen Allen campaign office on Fri., July 27. For once, organizers told me, they won’t be wondering “Where’s Brat?” They know exactly where he plans to be; inside the office, celebrating his birthday.