COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sen. Rob Portman denied claims Friday that he was inaccessible to the public and was met with protesters at an event at Columbus State Community College about the state’s opioid crisis.
“I’m very accessible, as you all know,” Portman said. “I think I was just told I’ve had 475 events in the state in the last year, and this event right now is open.”
The impromptu meeting lasted around 30 minutes in a conference room at Columbus State with around a dozen protesters who were organized in the parking lot to voice their concerns with the senator.
Protesters discussed the Trump administration, the President’s relationship with the media and Portman’s lack of traditional town halls with constituents.
“In the end, he didn't agree to even consider hosting an in-person town hall despite repeated requests to even just consider doing it,” said Judd Dunham, a Columbus man who was one of the protesters who met with Portman.
He added Portman seemed reluctant to consider the town hall because he feared they would ultimately be hostile and unproductive.
“That was the story I walked away with was that Republican legislators are using some of these highly publicized events where people go out and shout at town halls basically as a reason to stop talking to their constituents in public forums, which I think is just cowardly, dangerous and wrong,” Dunham said.
Dunham said the protesters don’t belong to any particular group, but instead organized through Facebook after seeing that Portman would be present at the Columbus event.
But Portman insisted he makes himself available to his constituents.
“I’m focused on issues that matter in Ohio, and nothing matters more right now than this epidemic,” Portman said. “This is an example of what I do every day, and my staff and I are always available. The people who protested today -- who I talked to -- acknowledge that they had all spoken to my staff, and my staff has passed along the concerns to me. So, it’s not that we haven’t been in touch with them.”
Portman urged for civility in politics.
“There are 11 and a half million people in the state and lots of different points of view, and everybody needs to be civil on both sides -- and I worry about that,” Portman said. “I think there is in our country today, and even here in our state of Ohio, an increasing division. People on both sides not listening to one another -- I listen to both. Trust me, I get a lot of input.”
The senator also cited tele-town hall meetings that’s he’s done throughout his time as senator, and said he would attend a town hall event at a factory in Northeast Ohio on Saturday.
He denied claims from a Thursday report from the Columbus Dispatch that said it was his decision to bar Democrats from a dinner he attended sponsored by the Seneca County Republican Party.
The Republican from Cincinnati said he planned on meeting with more protesters later in the day.
Connor Perrett is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @connorperrett.