Washington – With threats against members of Congress on the rise and President Donald Trump issuing hostile tweets against lawmakers of color, Rep. Jahana Hayes is taking extra care during her August break.
“I have a heightened sense of awareness,” Hayes said.
Hayes, D-5th District, said she has been the target of vile and racist phone calls, emails and social media posts. She said she sometimes wrenches the phone from a staffer to speak directly to an abusive caller.
Lawmakers were warned in a July 26 email from the House Sergeant at Arms, a law enforcement officer whose duties are to protect lawmakers and maintain order in the U.S. House, to take more precautions at public events during Congress’ summer break.
Hayes has not put out a public schedule since July 19, when her staff sent Connecticut news outlets an email about an upcoming visit to Little Poland in New Britain and a roundtable discussion in Waterbury.
“We’ve been careful about releasing where she’s going to be publicly,” said Hayes spokesman Sam Dorn.
Hayes said she understands why some have displayed hostility toward her, adding that she “knew what she would be getting into” when she ran for Congress. Hayes is the first African-American woman to represent a Connecticut district in Congress.
“I am an African-American woman who is newly elected in a district that is really moderate,” she said.
But Hayes said she has not been threatened physically and that the rancor she’s been subjected to is limited to a group of people whose names she’s begun to recognize because of the frequency of their attacks.
“It’s not like it’s an insurgency,” she said.
The August break is normally a chance for lawmakers to hold town halls and other public events to reconnect with their constituents.
But now a dark cloud looms over those summertime gatherings.
In his July 26 email, sent shortly before Congress broke for summer recess, the Sergeant of Arms warned lawmakers “of the significance of maintaining an enhanced security awareness in your district.”
Paul D. Irving, the House Sergeant at Arms, “strongly advised” lawmakers to have the “Law Enforcement Coordinator” on their staff submit information about all public forums to the Sergeant at Arms and the U.S. Capitol Police.
Irving said the information should be submitted at least three days in advance to give his office and the Capitol Police time “to coordinate with the proper law enforcement authorities for any necessary local police assistance at the event.”
Irving also told lawmakers “as you spend time in your district, I strongly encourage you and your staff to take this time to review your district office security protocols,” and to have staffers attend “security awareness briefings.”
“As a reminder, we also provide at no cost to the Members’ Representational Allowance, a security system for a district office that includes an intrusion detection, duress system, and video intercom,” Irving wrote in his memo.
Last month, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified that threats against members of Congress are increasing and on pace to exceed those received in fiscal year 2018.
“We continue to see the threat assessment cases that we’re opening continue to grow,” Sund told the House Administration Committee. “For fiscal year 2018 we had approximately 4,894 cases. So far for this year, we have 2,502 cases. So we’re on par to probably break last year’s.”
Sund’s testimony came two days after Trump sent a series of tweets telling four Democratic congresswomen of color, known as ‘the Squad,’ to “go back” to other countries.
All four are U.S. citizens and only one, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., was born outside the United States. The others — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — were born in the United States.
Ocasio-Cortez called the group of freshmen ‘the Squad’ in an Instagram post a week after Election Day and the moniker has stuck.
Although she shares some of their progressive ideas and non-traditional background, Hayes said some people assume “oh, she’s a fifth member of the squad,” or “she’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
But Hayes said she has split with Ocasio–Cortez and the other three congresswomen on a number of issues, including defense spending and a bill that gives the Trump administration additional money for border security.
“Look at my record. I’m in Congress to represent the people of my district,” she said, adding, “I know about compromise.”
After Trump’s tweets about the four congresswomen, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., sent a letter to the chairman of the Capitol Police Board, asking for an emergency meeting to examine the board’s approach to risk analysis for members at particularly high risk.
“Unfortunately, the president’s charged remarks directed towards Members of Congress have emboldened people to pursue acts of violence against public officials,” Thompson said.
He said that after Trump attacked Rep. Maxine Waters last year, the California Democrat received death threats. Thompson also said Trump’s remarks about Omar have incited death threats.
Since then, the president has launched a multi-day Twitter tirade against Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., calling the African-American lawmaker “racist” and his Baltimore district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Hayes said she is dismayed by the hostility and divisiveness that characterizes U.S. politics, but said that “from the perspective of a history teacher,” she believes the nation is going through “growing pains” that “will be overcome.”
“I think we can get back to the point where we can disagree without being disagreeable,” she said.