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‘The law is silent, but we won’t be'; Local political group hosts virtual town hall meeting

At the River Falls Public Library, a virtual town hall meeting was held by the Western Wisconsin Rise Up! political activist group Thursday, Feb. 23 to voice their concerns to Sen. Ron Johnson. Johnson did not attend the meeting. (Herald photo by Matthew Lambert) 1 / 3
River Falls resident Jack Kenefick sat in as Sen. Ron Johnson Thursday, Feb. 23 at a virtual town hall meeting at the River Falls Public Library. Kenefick read quotes on issues previously said by Johnson when people addressed him. (Herald photo by Matthew Lambert)2 / 3
River Falls resident Linda Alvarez holds up a stuffed toy chicken. Alvarez said the chicken is symbolic to the nature of the Western Wisconsin Rise Up! political group, saying residents are afraid to speak up to government. (Herald photo by Matthew Lambert)3 / 3

RIVER FALLS -- In the basement of the River Falls Public Library, local constituents held a virtual town hall Thursday, Feb. 23, in hopes that Sen. Ron Johnson would appear and talk with them.

However, Johnson wasn’t there.

“Unfortunately, Sen. Johnson will not be able to join us this evening,” Jennifer Nelson said in her opening remarks. “We did extend several invitations and have been in contact with his offices for the past several weeks. Sen. Johnson, I want you to know, that you are one of the few direct links to Washington that we have. And it’s important that we, your constituents, have this opportunity to talk with you, right now.”

With Johnson not present, they had to improvise.

Sitting at the head table, in front of an overflow crowd of people was Johnson’s image, blown up and held on a stick. Holding the image was retired attorney and River Falls resident Jack Kenefick, who volunteered to help his wife, Julie Kenefick.

A number of area residents addressed topics such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Johnson’s support for Trump’s appointments to head federal agencies and fill the empty Supreme Court seat, calls for Trump to release his tax information, and Trump’s alleged ties with Russia.

The faux Johnson responded in statements he previously made that were published at different times on each subject. His responses were met with a mix of boos and hisses from the crowd.

The town hall was live streamed on Facebook and recorded on video to be sent to Johnson at his office. Along with the video, a basket of get well cards were available as well to be sent to Johnson.

Julie Kenefick and Nelson are a part of the Western Wisconsin Rise Up! political activist group.

The group hosted the town hall in an effort to reach Johnson, who Grace Coggio, an Assistant Professor of Communications and Media Studies at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, said is a hard man to reach.

“I have tried to call him on multiple occasions,” Coggio said. “The phone, the number doesn’t go through. I checked the numbers, I called all three locations, it doesn’t even go to an answering machine. So hearing people here say the same thing, that makes me furious.”

The group took part in the Women’s March and the 10 actions in 100 days initiative. The Women’s March took place all over the country, including Washington D.C., Menomonie, Wis., and St. Paul, Minn. on Jan. 21.

The second action is called “huddle.” This is where the women thought of the virtual town hall. The group had a short timeline, after meeting Feb. 19 and putting the town hall together in a mere couple of days.

Coggio and Kenefick both participated in the march on Jan. 21. Coggio flew to Washington D.C. and Kenefick went with her family to St. Paul.

“It was fabulous,” Kenefick said. “It was absolutely fabulous. I worked at the state capitol many, many decades ago and I have never been in such a crowd of people who were so good to one another.”

It’s not a requirement to have marched to be a part of the group.

As far as attendance goes, the group had no idea what to expect.

Coggio said the town hall wasn’t “a far left group,” but rather a group of citizens who are searching for answers.

“These are people, many of whom are very centrist in their thinking, who are really concerned of what’s happening in this country,” Coggio said.

The group itself is new to politics as well. People like Kenefick and others were never politically active until this year.

“I am a very concerned mother and grandmother and as I have watched the Trump administration unfold, I’ve become more concerned for their lives,” Kenefick said. “I’m almost at the end of mine, but they’re just beginning.”

The group is currently working on other events and establishing a website.

At the end of the meeting, Linda Alvarez, a longtime River Falls resident, presented Johnson with a gift bag that contained a baggie of chicken feed, a stuffed toy chicken, and a can of cat food with an image of a scared cat on it.

Alvarez said the gifts were symbolic to the way the group felt. Citing the residents of River Falls weren’t lowly chicken feed, they were not afraid, or chicken, to stand up and speak their minds, and the cat food, which Alvarez called a “scaredy cat”, that the residents will be watching his actions closely throughout his term.  

Alvarez said in her closing remarks, “we hope that we see you in the flesh real soon. Until then, go in peace.”

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism.