Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Grand Manse in downtown Lincoln Tuesday to protest Sen. Deb Fischer's decision not to hold town hall meetings during the current congressional recess.

Meanwhile, inside the building, the news media was barred by the Lincoln Independent Business Association from covering Fischer's address to a luncheon meeting.

LIBA luncheon appearances by public officials traditionally have been open to the media.

"We decided to have members-only at this luncheon," LIBA President Coby Mach said over and over again as he was asked why the luncheon was closed and whether Fischer or her staff wanted it closed.

"The call for no press was a decision on LIBA's behalf," Fischer spokesperson Chanse Jones said.

Toward the end of Fischer's appearance, demonstrators entered the building, gathered outside the meeting room and chanted loudly, turning heads toward the windows inside the room.

"Do your job!" they chanted.

"We want a town hall!"

Law enforcement officers separated the crowd from the meeting room entrance, but there was no shoving and no disturbance. Later, officers would gently and patiently talk the crowd into slowly moving outside the building. No arrests were made.

Fischer left through another exit, avoiding the crowd and the media.

The senator talked about the prospect of business creation and job expansion under the Trump administration and expressed hope that the new administration will negotiate bilateral trade agreements that will be good for Nebraska, according to a tape recording of the meeting later provided to the Journal Star by a participant.

"I am disappointed that (he) withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but certainly not surprised," Fischer said, because that is what Trump said he would do.  

Answering questions about immigration and the accompanying challenge of meeting workforce needs if immigrants who are living and working here no longer are secure, Fischer said border security must come first.

Secure borders are an issue of national security, she said.

After that, she said, immigration reform will be "a step-by-step process."

Fischer told another questioner she voted to confirm the nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education only after she received written assurances that protect public education.

"I do not want to see a federal role," she said.

Fischer appeared reluctant to support Trump's trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal.

Pointing to the cost, she said: "I don't know that's the way to go."

Fischer told the audience that the election of a Republican president has given her an opening to " (have a) conversation and dialogue with people in the White House and the agencies that help me and Nebraska."

After seven questions and with the loud chanting of demonstrators making it difficult to hear, Mach called an end to the dialogue.

"Senator Fischer always welcomes respectful conversations with Nebraskans," her office declared in a later statement.

"She intends to continue her longstanding tradition of listening sessions across the state like she has always done. As you recall, she held 26 of these sessions last year."

LIBA's decision to close the meeting ran contrary to its usual model of welcoming, and sometimes even inviting, the media to cover luncheon appearances by public officials and political candidates.

The demonstration outside the building followed a national pattern of protests greeting Republican members of Congress during the February recess.

"Start listening to all of us," one sign said.

"Vote her out!" another sign declared.

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Other signs called the senator "Trump's puppet" and "Trump's lap dog."

Several protesters said they they felt Fischer ignored their concerns when she voted to confirm DeVos.

Rachel Black, 31, said DeVos’ confirmation hearings showed she was “woefully unqualified” to direct the country’s education policy.

Just because a majority of voters in Nebraska elected Trump doesn’t mean the state’s U.S. senators need to rubber-stamp his Cabinet nominees and policies, she said.

“They represent Nebraska,” the nonprofit worker said. “They don’t represent the (Trump) administration.”

Donna Jarka, 60, held a missing person sign with Fischer’s photo as she stood on the Grand Manse’s north entrance steps.

“They’re afraid to stand up to Trump,” the Lincoln woman said.

Jarka said she and others need answers from Fischer.

The least the senator can do, she and others said, is hold a town hall meeting.

Maybe a town hall won’t bring total agreement, Jarka said, but at least Fischer would hear her constituents.

DiAnn White agreed. The 67-year-old retired teacher doesn’t believe Fischer needs to vote no on everything, but she ought to act on concerns of Nebraskans.

“DeVos is a done deal — we can’t change that,” said White, who is concerned the new education secretary's policies may harm public school funding.

Fischer needs to get feedback from more than just Republicans, she said.

“What about the rest of the state?”

Fischer is Nebraska's senior senator. She was elected in 2012, and presumably will seek re-election in 2018.  

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

Reporter Riley Johnson contributed to this story.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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