U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has never felt physically threatened while meeting with constituents in his district.
That doesn’t mean he will ignore the security questions all elected officials are facing in the aftermath of Saturday’s assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Buchanan said he will meet with Bradenton and Sarasota police chiefs today to ensure he and his staff are taking every precaution to avoid what happened at a Tucson supermarket, where a gunman killed six and wounded 14.
Buchanan’s next town-hall meeting is Jan. 22 at Bayshore High School.
“She was doing what we all do,” Buchanan said of Giffords. “I probably do as many town halls as anybody. ... We’re not going to change our plans. I feel like it makes me a better congressman.”
Buchanan followed through on his promise on Monday when he shook hands and posed for pictures in a relaxed fashion with 300 who came to a 5 p.m. get-together for the opening of his new district office on South Orange Avenue in Sarasota.
An off-duty police officer with the Sarasota Police Department was hired for the event and remained in the background.
The horrific shooting was the main conversation at the open house and many of Buchanan’s constituents said they were angry that harsh rhetoric was being blamed for the shootings in some circles.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with politics,” said Carol Caprio, who attended along with Carlene Mallires and Betty Muldoon, all members of the Republican Women’s Club of Sarasota “You have a deranged killer. I don’t think rhetoric played a role at all.”
But Buchanan did not go that far in his remarks to the crowd at his new office.
“I think it needs to be dialed down,” Buchanan said of national rhetoric and party politics. “We’ve got to agree to disagree.”
Buchanan started off his open house with a moment of silence for the dead and the injured of the Arizona shooting.
He also had some emotional remarks about the shooting and about Giffords, who came into the U. S. House the same year he did.
“Some people said cancel it,” Buchanan said of Monday’s open house. “But I said, ‘No.’ We can’t stop doing what we do as a free society or we turn into a Third World country.
“She’s a fighter,” Buchanan said of Giffords. “She was doing what she was supposed to be doing, reaching out to her constituents.”
Manatee County’s two representatives in the U.S. House, Buchanan and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said they are determined to maintain their schedules of public appearances even after Giffords was critically wounded.
They say they will remain accessible as they review security procedures.
“Overall, I feel pretty secure,” Buchanan said. “I guess I just didn’t think about it.”
Castor said she spoke about Rep. Giffords during her speech Monday at the kickoff of Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day in Largo. Castor and Giffords entered Congress in 2006 -- as did Buchanan -- and once served together on the House Armed Services Committee.
Castor last saw Giffords on Friday afternoon, when House Democrats discussed committee appointments.
“It was my first public appearance since the shooting,” Castor said. “I wanted to make a few points, that Rep. Giffords was a model congresswomen. She would have arrived home late Friday night and was up Saturday morning for an event with her constituents. That’s a very good example of how she served.”
Castor will not scale back her public schedule, she said.
“That’s our job,” Castor said. “Especially as we start to see economic recovery and jobs coming back, people need our assistance more than ever. A lot of what we do -- the Veterans Administration and helping people with Social Security -- requires us to be available to the public.”
Buchanan and Castor agreed that fiery political rhetoric played at least a part in inspiring the assassination attempt allegedly carried out by 22-year-old Jared Loughner.
Earlier this year, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin placed Giffords and other Democrats in the “crosshairs” of her political action committee’s attempt to regain congressional seats for the GOP, and the November election between Giffords and Republican Jesse Kelly was considered contentious.
“I do think this was an isolated incident. ... In general, we need to ratchet down the rhetoric on both sides,” Buchanan said. “We can be passionate about our issues, but we’re all Americans.”
Castor held a meeting with her staffers Monday before her public appearance to discuss the impact of the attempt on Giffords’ life.
“We just wanted to be together,” Castor said. “We’re not unlike Rep. Giffords’ staff. We’re out and about constantly. I wanted to make sure they’re feeling all right. Everyone was sad and taken aback.”