Keith Rothfus likes to meet his constituents at coffee shops and other restaurants rather than a formal town hall like many representatives do. He usually has these during the week day, and based on the pictures from his Facebook and Twitter pages, they are attended mostly by seniors. I always wanted to see what one was like, so I found my chance when he scheduled an early morning one before work. I attended his recent “Coffee with Keith” at the Coffee Buddha on Perrysville Avenue in Ross Township.
The coffee shop is very small, but the coffee was very good. I would certainly stop there again if I was in the area, but it is a little out of the way for me. It has a front sitting area with a few chairs, and a couple chairs to the right of the counter. That is about it.
I was expecting a sign or something announcing that Congressman Rothfus was having an event there. Instead, he was sitting in the corner to the right of the counter with a couple people and two staffers. I would not have known he was there if I wasn’t looking for him. It seemed like a typical morning for the coffee shop. I am guessing other patrons didn’t realize he was there. From their point of view, it looked like a couple people sitting around kibitzing and drinking coffee.
This is the extreme opposite of a formal town hall I attended with Jason Altmire. His was held at in a library meeting room which was packed. The front row was Tea Party members all with video cameras on tripods to record his every word. Jason seemed to know them all by name from attending other events. His relationship with them seemed to be a strange combination of friendly and hostile if that makes any sense. It was a loud and emotional event with people firing questions at him from all sides of the political spectrum.
The first thing I thought was that the coffee shop seems to work for Keith Rothfus. I have met him a couple times in the past before he became a Congressman, and he has the same low key personality. I don’t think he could command a big room like I have seen Jason Altmire or Erin McClelland do. He doesn’t have the imposing physical presence or the personality for that. I am not sure how he would handle an audience like a town hall that wasn’t completely friendly, but I don’t think it would go well. I would love to see him have one in the evening to prove me wrong.
The coffee shop also forces the discussions to be less emotional. The discussions were in hushed tones, because you were in a coffee shop and didn’t want to disrupt business during the morning rush. A bunch of pissed off voters would have disrupted the business, and they are the ones that would have looked bad and be blamed.
I found the location affected the tone of the questions I asked, and his answers were not as ideological as you see in his speeches, and in his Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was more conversational than question and answer. For example, I asked him what he was doing to cross the isle and foster bipartisanship, and he talked about building relationships and focusing on getting to know his fellow freshman congressman. He told a great story about going to Arlington with a group of freshman congressmen. I suggested that maybe he should be in Washington rather than being off from early August until after the election except for one week, and he sheepishly agreed.
Conversely, I came across a video of a debate he had with Mark Critz, and when asked about polarization in Washington, he blamed the Senate and the President and sounded like he would be part of the problem and not part of the solution. This is consistent with what he posts in social media, and what his supporters expect to hear. I would have liked to include a link to the video, but it was “unlisted,” so I did not think it was appropriate to include here.
I could have gotten into more controversial topics with him like his voting against Hurricane Sandy relief and the violence against women act, his blaming everything that is wrong with our healthcare system on the Affordable Healthcare Act or his denial of climate change, but a coffee shop with two other people just didn’t seem like the right place. These are issues that he should discuss with his constituents, but in a more appropriate venue like a town hall.
The debates with Erin McClelland will not just be a clash of ideologies, but a clash of personalities as well. Erin McCelland is very high energy, aggressive and can take over a room. It will be interesting seeing how Keith Rothfus confronts that. Two confirmed debates are the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce Debate on October 15th at Penn State, Beaver Campus, and October 28th at Laurel View in Davidsville, PA.