Local congressmen, who typically have no security escorts when attending public events, are evaluating their security arrangements after a gunman critically injured a congresswoman in Arizona on Saturday and killed six people.
In 2009, amid increasing hostility to the federal government, someone called the office of then-Congressman Zack Space and left a threatening message.
“Get your flack jacket on. I’m coming after you,” the caller said.
Space said it wasn’t an isolated incident.
“We’ve had threats over the years when people have indicated they would come into my house,” said Space, a Democrat from Dover who lost his bid for a third term in November to represent Ohio’s 18th District. “I am concerned. I have a gun here that I keep.”
But while Space said the attempted intimidation never influenced any of his votes in Congress, it prompted him to be more vigilant when meeting with large groups of constituents. At times, sheriff’s deputies even escorted him to the public events.
“I’ve had heated discussions with people where I felt it was getting real close to escalating to beyond just shouting,” Space recalled. “There were times I was especially vigilant. I would watch the crowd. ... We felt this was a matter of time that something tragic would happen.”
On Saturday, the fears of Space as well as those of former and current members of Congress were realized when a gunman shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed six people. Giffords had been meeting with constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz.
In response, Ohio congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, are reassessing their security arrangements, while the shooting has sparked a national and local debate on the role the angry rhetoric of the last two years played in the tragedy.
Renacci’s chief of staff, James Slepian, said Renacci planned to take additional security precautions, such as arranging for controlled access to his district office in Belden Village and requesting a police presence at large public events.
“We really want people to feel comfortable and safe coming to these events,” said Slepian, who added that Renacci had received no threats. “Most people will recognize what happened in Arizona was an isolated incident with a disturbed individual.”
Walsh University and North Canton decided to increase the number of police officers providing security at Renacci’s town hall event on the university’s campus Monday night.
U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, who succeeded Space last week, will inform local police when he holds a public event in the 18th District, said his spokesman Catherine Gatewood.
The shooting occurred a few weeks after a federal jury in Akron convicted a Tennessee man of threatening to burn down Boccieri’s house. The man was upset with former Democratic congressman John Boccieri’s vote for the health care bill.
Page 2 of 2 - Both Boccieri, of Alliance, who was succeeded by Renacci as congressman for Ohio’s 16th District, and Space said inflammatory rhetoric from conservatives and liberals contributed to an environment devoid of civility or respect toward government that could drive people to violence.
Last year, former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin posted a controversial map with crosshair symbols on the districts of several Democratic congressmen who had voted for the health care bill, including Boccieri and Giffords. On Twitter, Palin wrote, “Don’t Retreat, Instead Reload.”
“That type of political rhetoric is over the top,” said Boccieri, who also criticized a former Democratic congressman who said Republicans against the health care bill wanted people to “die quickly.” “Our words have meaning, but they also have consequences.”
Renacci said on WHBC that verbal political attacks are different from political violence.
“The tragic shootings in Arizona were really the work of a deranged mad man. He is really at fault for this. The work of political actors and the media to deflect blame from the shooter specifically to make political points are sad and deplorable,” he said.
Space, who said that he was not directly blaming Palin for the shooting, said the answer is not stricter gun control laws but addressing mental illness.
“This should not be an argument about whether or not the Second Amendment gives people the right to bear firearms,” he said. “In our society, if someone’s mentally ill, we either ignore it, or we sweep it under the rug or we don’t provide the treatment they need.”
Boccieri and Space don’t back costly Secret Service-level security that places every member of Congress in a bubble.
“If we surrender and don’t appear in public and don’t show up for public events, then the folks who are trying to intimidate and make people afraid to serve in public office will have won, and I don’t think that will happen,” said Boccieri.