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Bob Brady remembers the bullet he got in the mail, with his name scribbled on the paper taped around it. Frank LoBiondo keeps two panic buttons in his district office. A man called Joe Sestak's office to say, "Now I'm going to use my Second Amendment right."
Of course, the Philadelphia region's current and former members of Congress say, none of that dissuaded them or their staffs from coming to work each day.
But threats such as those have become far too common in this age of wild and woolly political rhetoric, representatives and their aides said Monday. And in the aftermath of the shooting that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.) and killed six people, many vowed to take stronger measures against such violent talk.
Area representatives began reexamining security for themselves and their staffs - especially those who work in district offices, far outside official Washington's umbrella of security.
Freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan met with district staffers Monday morning at his new office in Springfield, Delaware County, to reassure them that they should speak up if they feel uncomfortable or fearful in any situation. Brady went further, vowing to propose legislation that would extend to members of Congress - and potentially their staffs - the federal law that criminalizes threats against the president.
"The staffers are loyal and they will follow you into a building," said Meehan, a Republican. "I don't want them to think they're running into a burning building. And I wanted them to feel comfortable that if they ever felt uneasy about something, they should come forward."
Angry and occasionally threatening contact from upset constituents is nothing new for those on the front lines of congressional work. Every day, local staffers field calls and visits from citizens who take their passion for pet causes or problems to verbal extremes, said Brady's spokeswoman, Karen Warrington.
"One of the things you learn whenever you work in a public situation is that there are a lot of people who are agitated and possibly disturbed," she said. "At no point do you ever know when one will become violent."
After he and a staffer were shoved at an event in last year, then-Rep. John Adler (D., N.J.) began notifying local police before each big public gathering he held in his district. His town-hall meetings - particularly during and after last year's health-care debate - drew large crowds, often peppered with angry constituents.
Former Rep. Patrick Murphy also received threats over his support for the health-care law. The Bucks County Democrat was one of several around the country - including Giffords - who were the subject of intense political heat for supporting the Democratic-backed health-care bill.
An aide to Sestak, a former Democratic congressman, remembered the angry caller who ominously cited his right to bear arms. "He said, 'You've taken away my First Amendment right, so now I'm going to use my Second Amendment right,' " said Bill Walsh, who was Sestak's district office director.
Saturday's attack on Giffords during a "Congress on Your Corner" event outside a Tucson grocery store had some lawmakers stressing that the danger was not only to themselves.
The congresswoman's director of community outreach, Gabe Zimmerman, died from wounds sustained in the attack, as did five constituents - including the 9-year-old granddaughter of former Phillies manager Dallas Green. Thirteen others were injured.
"When Joe and Jane Housewife come out to hear something from their elected official and then they're killed, that adds a whole new dimension to the problem," said Warrington.
Her boss would know. During Brady's 2007 run for Philadelphia mayor, an anonymous caller threatened, "You're not going to get past your opening remarks," minutes before the candidate took the stage in a primary debate.
During a conference call with House members Saturday, the Capitol Police urged local congressional offices to coordinate future events with area police and review security systems in their offices.
LoBiondo (R., N.J.) has two panic buttons in his Mays Landing district office. The Senate likewise outfitted the Barrington office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) with bulletproof glass and panic buttons a few years ago.
Staffers in Meehan's office in Springfield were still unpacking boxes Monday when local police came by to suggest security upgrades. A locked door already separates the rest of the office from the reception area, and cameras in the hallway and parking lot monitor traffic in and out of the building, said Caitlin Ganley, director of Meehan's district office.
"It makes you more aware of your surroundings, you take precautions when you're out at events . . . looking to see who's around you, where there are exits," she said.
Ganley said Meehan's staff still planned to host town-hall meetings but would inform police of such events.
Rep Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) put it more succinctly:
"There's kooks all over the place. I don't know why we would spend a lot of time on nutty people. Whatever is happening, I am going on with my work, and that is what I think everyone else should do."
"That is what symbolizes the congresswoman," Fattah said of Giffords. "She had kooks, but she went on with her work."
January 11, 2011|By Jeremy Roebuck, Joelle Farrell, and Cynthia Burton, Inquirer Staff Writers