People's Town Hall for Bob Goodlatte

Chris Gavaler holds a cardboard cutout of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, at a “People’s Town Hall for Bob Goodlatte.” The congressman declined an invitation to the February event co-organized by Gavaler and other grassroots activists.

Chris Gavaler writes his congressman every day.

Frustrated by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University has written more than 200 emails to Rep. Bob Goodlatte since December.

After Donald Trump won the presidential election, Gavaler, 51, was angry. He found himself having imaginary shouting matches with people he assumed were Trump supporters at the grocery store and while running other errands.

“The election was upsetting,” he said. “The first time I voted in an election, it was for Walter Mondale. I did not become a grassroots political activist because Walter Mondale lost. Same for [Michael] Dukakis, none of them triggered me to becoming politically active.

“It’s very specific to Donald Trump.”

While most of Gavaler’s concerns stem from the leader of the executive branch, he’s channeling his political activism toward his local politicians.

On Dec. 4, 2016, Gavaler started submitting daily emails through the contact form on Goodlatte’s congressional website. Gavaler has submitted so many emails the website thinks he’s a spambot.

In the past, Gavaler was never particularly politically active. He wrote the occasional letter to the editor and got roped into making get-out-the-vote calls every once in a while. The Democrat who identifies as a progressive didn’t know he lived in the 6th Congressional District and he had never contacted Goodlatte’s office before.

Many of the emails chronicled on Gavaler’s “Dear Bob” blog center on questions about where Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, stands on certain policy initiatives. Mostly, the emails challenge Goodlatte on replacement of the Affordable Care Act and oversight of the executive branch.

Ultimately, Gavaler — who also writes a superhero comics blog stemming from his professional research — is trying to clarify what he sees as contradictions between what Goodlatte says and what Goodlatte does.

Goodlatte, who is in his 13th term, is chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee that is charged with overseeing courts, administrative agencies and law enforcement on the federal level and is responsible for impeachments of federal officials.

A sampling of the subject lines on the emails include: “ethics?” “Please audit the President-elect” “grabbing a woman by her genitals?” “Michael Flynn” “mean” and “grounds for impeachment?”

Gavaler also posts the responses from Goodlatte’s office, which are often form letters on specific topics.

Several members of Goodlatte’s staff have met with Gavaler and tried to respond to his requests, said Goodlatte spokeswoman Beth Breeding.

“Congressman Goodlatte’s office receives upwards of 5,000 constituent letters, emails, and phone calls each week,” Breeding said. “Responding to constituent mail is just one of the many responsibilities of staff. Congressman Goodlatte’s staff has met with Mr. Gavaler on several occasions, and we are well aware of his communications. Congressman Goodlatte welcomes the input of all Sixth District constituents. Even though they may not agree on each and every issue, it is an important part of our representative democracy.”

The organizer of 50 Ways-Rockbridge — a group of citizens in Rockbridge County working to educate themselves on political issues — is careful about the tone of his emails. As he writes, Gavaler tries to use reasonable rhetoric instead of adding to the divisive, partisan speech that he calls ubiquitous.

“A lot of progressives are shouting and hurling insults,” he said. “I’m trying to do the exact opposite. I’m trying to present common, reasonable, principled American values of how a democracy is supposed to work.”

Gavaler, like many of the Indivisible groups in the 6th District, has requested Goodlatte hold a town hall meeting so the congressman and his constituents can talk.

Goodlatte, who meets with constituents when he’s in the district and holds Facebook Live question-and-answer sessions and telephone town halls, has said in-person town hall meetings are not conducive for having substantive civil discourse.

Gavaler’s anger from the election has somewhat subsided. The emails and corresponding blog have allowed him to channel his negative energy positively, he said.

When Gavaler started the project, he vowed to write letters every day for a year. He has never met Goodlatte.

“There’s certainly frustration, but frustration was built into the project from step one,” Gavaler said. “I did not start out with the belief that Bob Goodlatte was ever going to respond to me.”

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