Members of Congress operate without protection — and like it that way
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In a city and state where it was once common for even two-bit aldermen to have a bodyguard, I’ve always found it refreshing that members of Congress don’t.
U.S. senators and representatives on home visits to Illinois move about their districts freely, rarely with more than a traveling aide at their side.
It’s not uncommon to attend a meeting with Sen. Dick Durbin in downtown Chicago and see him arrive alone by taxi or bus.
There’s something to be said for public officials living in the same world as the rest of us, physically accessible to their constituents, without an armed bodyguard standing nearby.
That practice may be called into question again with Wednesday’s shooting at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., involving Republican members of Congress, just as it was after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson in 2011.
If not for members of the Capitol Police on scene Wednesday serving as a security detail for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was wounded in the attack, the carnage might have been worse, we are told.
Arguably, this was a unique situation with a large group of congressmen out in the open away from the Capitol, which made for a more inviting target for James T. Hodgkinson, the Illinois man identified as the shooter.
But there is no shortage of angry constituents in every congressional district these days, and Hodgkinson reminds us that gun-toting lunatics can come in all political persuasions.
Only members of Congress in leadership positions, such as Scalise, have their own traveling security details.
“Where is your security?” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat, said he is often asked by the people who encounter him here at the grocery store or at the movie theater. “They are surprised that we don’t have it.”
Gutierrez said he wouldn’t want to see that change, despite receiving more than his share of threats as a national leader on immigration.
Those threats have increased markedly during the last year, Gutierrez said, without mentioning the reason for that or needing to do so.
The threats usually arrive via Facebook and telephone. In person, people are courteous, said Gutierrez, who has been a highly recognizable face in this city since his first campaign for alderman.
“I love that interaction with people. I feel very safe, even after what happened this morning,” said Gutierrez, who expressed his support for Scalise and his Republican colleagues.
One reason Chicagoans might be surprised to find Gutierrez on his own is that it’s in marked contrast to the round-the-clock police security details commanded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner, not that I begrudge them the protection.
Both the city and state have cut back on security for other public officials in recent years, in part as a cost-saving measure but also because of different political sensibilities. Elected officials who might have once wanted a bodyguard as a display of their status now recognize them as a potential political liability.
Like Gutierrez, freshman U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Schaumburg, said he prefers being able to move around and meet constituents without security.
“I want them to have as much access as possible to me,” said Krishnamoorthi, who also like Gutierrez has received threats that he turned over to Capitol Police for followup investigation.
“I don’t see the need for that to change, although we definitely have to be more vigilant about security going forward,” Krishnamoorthi said.
After Giffords was shot, security procedures for members of Congress were tightened, I’m told. But everything gradually went back to normal.