Most from Mass. refuse more security

OPTING OUT “I’m not going to allow anything between me and my constituents,” said Representative Michael Capuano. OPTING OUT
“I’m not going to allow anything between me and my constituents,” said Representative Michael Capuano.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / January 11, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The “Congress on Your Corner’’ meeting for Representative Niki Tsongas and about 40 constituents was just beginning at the Chelmsford Library Saturday when the horrific news came.

Her good friend and colleague Gabrielle Giffords had just been shot at an event of the same type in Tucson.

“We asked if [an officer] could come and stay with us, because you just don’t know,’’ said Tsongas, who normally doesn’t arrange for police at her events, but officers were nearby dealing with a traffic accident.

The attack in Tucson has caused Tsongas to reassess her approach to what had been a routine — and treasured — part of her job.

“Going forward we will want to be very sure our staff feels comfortable and constituents are comfortable,’’ the Lowell Democrat said. “We’ll think it through.’’

Tsongas, who did not detail any proposed changes, was the exception among House members of the Massachusetts delegation contacted yesterday. The others said they do not expect to change their practices after the attack that killed six people and wounded Giffords, adding that they would not want another layer of security between them and their constituents.

“I don’t think you can do this job if you isolate yourself or if you’re in a bubble,’’ said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat.

House Speaker John Boehner has asked the Capitol Police and the FBI to provide a security briefing for members tomorrow. Representative James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, has called for more spending on security for Congress members, who, except for top leaders, do not generally have security details in their home districts.

Some lawmakers were taking measures into their own hands. At least two representatives, Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, and Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat, have said they planned to carry guns at events in their home districts.

“It’s very scary, but that’s just kind of the reality of the job at this point,’’ Shuler told WLOS-TV, adding that he has occasionally carried a gun since a threat was made in 2009. He also encourages his staff to be trained in firearms.

He said he would not carry a weapon in the District of Columbia. The Capitol Police provides security for members on Capitol Hill.

Security has gradually increased in Washington over many years in response to terrorist attacks. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Pennsylvania Avenue was permanently closed to traffic in front of the White House, and rings of protective pylons were placed at key buildings to deter truck bombs. Since the anthrax attack of 2001, congressional mail has been screened off-site, causing long delays in delivery.

The FBI and the US Capitol Police have documented a surge in threats against lawmakers, up 300 percent in the last year alone, said Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a statement. “We want more citizen participation in our democracy, but we also must ensure that parents feel safe bringing their children to town hall meetings,’’ said Kerry.

Several Massachusetts representatives acknowledged receiving threats, which they refer to the authorities, including the Capitol Police. Discerning a real threat from some harmless angry words “is a judgment issue, obviously,’’ said Representative John Tierney, Democrat of Salem. “I’ve always advised my folks to err on the side of caution. Let law enforcement know; they will handle it professionally and discreetly.’’

Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, said he doesn’t want additional security. “I’m not going to allow anything between me and my constituents,’’ he said.

It’s a sentiment that runs through much of the delegation. Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, promised yesterday “my interaction with my constituents isn’t going to diminish.’’

Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, said at an event in Springfield that he likes to interact with voters and the shootings will not change how he deals with the public.

At the Massachusetts State House yesterday, Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Governor Deval Patrick discussed the Arizona shooting during a regularly scheduled meeting.

“We all get letters, we all get e-mails, we all get calls, sometimes, from people who are having issues,’’ Murray said after the meeting. “For me, I know, it depends on what’s in that, whether it goes to the State Police or somebody else to look at.’’

DeLeo said he also fields unnerving calls. “A lot of people are on edge right now,’’ he said.

But he added that the State House, which has metal detectors, does not need added security because citizens must have access to their government.

Patrick said he is not considering additional security. “We want to strike a balance, as you would in every successful democracy, to have the right level of security but not to wall yourself off from the general public,’’ he said.

That balance is key, say members of the Massachusetts delegation.

Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat, said he has on occasion arranged for local police to attend a constituent event, such as the contentious meetings over the health care overhaul. His constituents were still happy to give him an earful.

“The local officers in no way served as an inhibitor,’’ he said.

Globe staff reporter Michael Levenson contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at