U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan on Monday received the Spirit of Enterprise Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during a special presentation at Gold Coast Eagle Distribution in Lakewood Ranch.
The annual award recognizes lawmakers who advocate pro-business legislation, and many local entrepreneurs were in attendance.
The protesters gathered outside of the event venue were not in a celebratory mood, however.
Protesters, many of whom also took part in a display in front of the Manatee County Courthouse in May, called on Buchanan to hold a district-wide town hall and address their concerns about election security, the findings in the Mueller report and other issues.
“We are very concerned, because we haven’t heard him say anything other than Putin is not our friend,” said Karen Curlin, an organizer with Indivisible East Manatee.
Buchanan’s last district-wide town hall was held in March 2017 at Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, and all public input sessions held since have been limited in size and publicity.
Indivisible Manatee members understood that Monday’s event was going to be open to the public, but said it was later changed to a private event.
“It was originally public. But they got wind of the fact that we were coming and changed it to members only,” said Bob Fine. “So I can’t go in and talk to my congressman who doesn’t want to hear from me.”
On Tuesday, Susan Goldstein with the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance said that was never the case.
“The intent was always for it to a benefit of membership. Our original literature did not make that clear. It never said open to the public. It simply said no registration was required and it was free, but it was only going out to the members on the nine organizations that attended. We realized that we had to clarify that.”
Those invited were members of the Manatee and Sarasota chambers of commerce, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee, Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., EDC of Sarasota County and Institute of Public Policy and Leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
“Our members do come from all walks of life and all political perspectives,” Goldstein said. “And the common element for the event was business.”
Michael Gallen, vice president of public policy and small business with the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said that they were limited by the size of the venue, which was at standing-room only by the time of Buchanan’s appearance.
Members of the group outside said that they were once again being snubbed by the congressman.
“We’ve made multiple attempts to meet him and we only get staff,” Curlin said.
“Every week I speak to his secretary,” said Graciela Greenburg. “She’s very nice, but I never hear anything back.”
The crowd, which included members of local political groups and voters from Buchanan’s district, lined the street leading up to the event venue and waved signs with messages including “Town Hall Now, “ and “Read the Mueller Report.”
“I want to know why he dismissed the Mueller report with the conclusion that there was no collusion,” said Barbara Hyde. “He tweeted out case closed. But not according to the report. He’s putting party over country and Constitution.”
Dressed in a star-spangled suit, Robert McCaa said that he’s not usually one for political events, but he was motivated to do something by a recent tweet from President Donald Trump that referenced voters demanding a third term.
“I think our congressional representative should read the Mueller report and act on it,” McCaa said. “The last sentence is a call for action.”
Inside, Sarasota and Manatee county residents in business attire sipped drinks and made small talk before the award presentation and an address from Buchanan.
Buchanan started by recognizing the local business communities in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“This is a region,” Buchanan said. “Sarasota and Manatee County kind of work together. I like to see them work together. It’s so impactful.”
Then the congressman addressed the town hall issue, referring to the protesters outside as his friends.
“I see a lot of my friends outside today,” Buchanan said to laughter from the crowd. “It’s nice to see your voters. But I will tell you that, in terms of town halls — I like doing town halls. I did eighty-some town halls. But then, what happened was, we decided about two years ago to do a town hall. They were pressing me to do one. I knew it’d be a lot of political theater.”
Buchanan described the district wide town-hall at Van Wezel as “crazy.”
“At the end of two weeks we had 5,500 RSVPs. We moved into the Van Wezel and we had thousands outside. That’s how crazy it’s got — the environment — in terms of some of these political groups. Cause it’s hard to have a discussion. But I went anyway. I thought I’d be a team sport. But all of it’s very organized. It’s unfortunate.”
Buchanan then said that the best way he can be a representative is to “go out and listen.”
“I love to do that,” Buchanan said. “That’s why we do so much with emails and surveys and other things.”
Buchanan said that the No. 1 issue brought up in surveys is dysfunction in Washington D.C.
“People are saying why can’t you in Washington work together?” Buchanan said. “I co-chair the (Florida) delegation with Alcee Hastings. He’s probably one of the most liberal members (of Congress), but there’s a lot things we do get done on veterans issues and small business issues. But you don’t hear that. It’s all about things like the Mueller report.”
Buchanan said that he has read the Mueller report twice. He said there was no conspiracy uncovered by the investigation.
“My point to them: move on. Get over it. You lost the election. Let’s move on and get something done for the American people. And I think that deserves a round of applause.”
The room applauded.
Buchanan highlighted other points on his political agenda in Washington, including reducing healthcare costs and Florida’s water quality.
“Good environment is good business,” Buchanan said, citing a recent measure he sponsored to study the effects of red tide on human health.
The congressman also said that he has been spending a lot more time in the White House in new role as the Republican leader on the House’s trade subcommittee.
“It’s pretty exciting because that’s where the president’s energy is at. He’s very interested in trade, and I’m the one who has to get the votes, for the most part, to make these deals happen. One in five jobs in Florida is trade related.”
After he spoke, Buchanan took four questions from the crowd about trade, tariffs and foreign policy with Latin America.
Then the congressman shook a few hands, posed for a few photos and departed through a side door as the crowd dispersed.
On Tuesday, Buchanan spokesman Anthony Cruz responded to concerns about the representative’s accessibility in an email statement.
“As everyone in our district knows, Vern makes it a point to stay in touch with people and listen to their concerns, through meetings, emails, phone calls, social media, town halls (two so far this year) and our weekly constituent surveys, which get upwards of 20,000 responses each week,” Cruz said.
Cruz said that, in the last week alone, Buchanan has received voter input via thousands of emails, phone calls and and social media comments.
“Of course, there will always be people who are never satisfied, especially in this very partisan and divided climate,” Cruz said, calling Buchanan’s accessibility “second to none” in Congress.
Cruz said that the public and press will be notified of future town halls, but there was no word on when the next one might be.