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Originally published Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 8:08 PM

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State’s Congress members have relatively low-key recess

Members of Congress from Washington state have spent most of their five-week summer recess engaging with constituents in small, scripted venues instead of debating — or arguing — with them in freewheeling town halls.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — When Jason Ritchie heard U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert spent part of his August congressional break visiting Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Issaquah businessman had one thought: How about some face time for Reichert’s own constituents?

Ritchie, a Democrat who plans to run for Reichert’s 8th District seat next year, complained the Auburn Republican was mostly absent from voters during the summer recess.

Reichert has appeared at a smattering of events around his sprawling district, including a small business round-table in Bellevue and a naturalization ceremony in Chelan. But he has skipped hosting town halls or other open forums for voters to question him on hot-button issues.

“Why hasn’t Mr. Reichert spent his recess explaining his position to his constituents?” Ritchie asked.

Reichert’s office did not respond to a telephone call and emails for comment.

Not that voters have had much more luck with most of the other 11 members of the state’s congressional delegation.

The United States is edging toward possible attacks on Syria with cruise missiles, and is once again teetering on the verge of default and a government shutdown. Yet many lawmakers this summer have stuck to smaller, scripted public events focused on specific topics, from veterans affairs to banking laws for marijuana vendors.

One notable exception was Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ annual town hall in Spokane. McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 House Republican leader, last month drew 400 voters to Lincoln Center who greeted her attacks on the federal health-care law known as Obamacare with both derision and applause.

That’s in contrast to the raucous gatherings in 2009 during the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Back then, such lawmakers as Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen, of Everett, and Adam Smith, of Bellevue, packed crowds of thousands into sports stadiums.

Smith didn’t hold any town halls this August. He did host three earlier this year that drew several dozen people. Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, last week returned from a visit to the Syrian-Jordanian border and other Middle East spots.

Larsen has crisscrossed his 2nd District, which spans the San Juan Islands to Bellingham, for roundtables on the Affordable Care Act, conversations with veterans and visits to food banks and others.

Congress will return from its five-week recess Sept. 9.

Still, some voters yearn to engage more widely and directly with their representatives in the House and Senate.

Don Anglin, a retired Boeing manager in Snohomish County, has never met any of the state’s elected federal officials. But he has written to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Gov. Jay Inslee, his former congressman in the 1st District, about federal spending, visas for skilled immigrants and other matters.

Anglin said Murray’s office was “like a black hole,” Cantwell’s staff was better about replying and Inslee answered without fail.

“I did not always like the response but at least he responded back,” Anglin, who said he leans Republican, said of the Democrat Inslee.

Anglin, 69, said he would show up for a town hall if he knew about one. He doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter, two of the ways to contact his new congresswoman, Rep. Suzan DelBene.

Anglin recalled that when he lived in the Kent area several years ago, Reichert used to show up to local Republican Party gatherings and hobnob with voters.

“The days when you meet face to face and talk about issues seems to be gone,” Anglin said.

Lawmakers say they connect with constituents in a variety of ways, including at their district offices and in Washington, D.C. Before the recess, freshman Rep. Derek Kilmer, of Gig Harbor, held two telephone town halls and one via Twitter. In recent weeks, he has focused more on one-on-one conversations at a local diner, the ferry dock, farmers’ markets and other venues.

Another Democratic freshman, Rep. Denny Heck, of Olympia, opted to focus in part on a half-dozen big issues during the recess. He invited experts for talks on the Puget Sound recovery, Afghanistan, the federal budget and other issues to engage constituents “in a more substantive way,” said his spokesman, Phil Gardner.

Neither Murray nor Cantwell held an open-topic town hall with voters this summer.

Cantwell’s spokesman, Jared Leopold, said she has spent the recess focusing on jobs and the economy. She has, for example, met with wheat growers in Spokane County about the impasse over reauthorizing the food-stamp program and port officials in Seattle and Tacoma about exports.

Matt McAlvanah, Murray’s spokesman, said Murray connects with Washington families in many different ways. This summer, Murray has hosted forums on the Oct. 1 start of the major portions of Obamacare and on small-business and veterans issues, among others.

But McAlvanah said even at more formal events — such as the fifth anniversary celebration of the creation of Wild Sky Wilderness she attended two weeks ago with Larsen — the public has a chance to interact with Murray.

“She plans to take the feedback she heard at those events, as well as what has been shared in emails and calls to her office, back to Washington, D.C., to fight for Washington state’s needs,” McAlvanah said by email.

DelBene, a freshman Democrat from Medina, has filled her recess calendar with tours of Paine Field, Valley General Hospital and local businesses, as well as round tables on immigration reform. In May, she hosted two “budget workshops” for constituents to stimulate debate over federal spending.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m., DelBene will host her second telephone town hall since March. Email invitations are going to nearly 7,000 people on her newsletter list. Staff and volunteers also will call tens of thousands of district residents, who will be patched directly to the live call.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @KyungMSong

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