When Rothfus first took office in 2013, he met with constituents on a regular basis at coffee shops throughout his district. He called these events “Coffee with Keith.” (PA loves alliteration; see also: Tuesdays with Toomey.) They were meant to “help [him] better serve and represent” his district by talking with constituents on the issues important to them, according to his website.
Unfortunately, Rothfus has been less and less available to his constituents each year. According to Todd Holsopple, a Somerset county native, there were 29 Coffees with Keith in 2013, 26 in 2014, and 23 in 2015. Then, last year, there were only 2 publicized events, and they were both in January.
That means it’s been over a year since Rothfus met with his constituents in an open forum. This is making residents of the 12th district displeased. Holsopple decided to celebrate this one-year “anniversary” in an unexpected manner: by delivering donuts to Rothfus’s office. After all, donuts taste great with coffee.
Holsopple put a call out on social media asking others to do the same, and a few responded. So on January 25th, a handful of people individually showed up to Rothfus’s offices with donuts and a message: We want you to listen to us.
“I had a couple of volunteers after I proposed the idea,” he told me in a phone interview. “I think there were 6 people who went to the Ross office.”
Unfortunately, staffers were unable to accept the donuts, because they’re considered a gift. (The donuts later found good homes in teachers’ lounges and with people changing a tire.) That didn’t keep volunteers from making sure Rothfus got the message, though. Rachael Mackenzie, who took donuts to the Ross office, left a note with the aid there. The note said:
You know what would go great with these donuts?
COFFEE with your constituents.
These 12 donuts represent the 12 months that have passed since you last met in an open forum with your constituents.
When is the next Coffee with Keith?
Please share the date and time on your social media accounts and webpage in a timely manner and consider choosing a time that could include the majority of your constituents that have to be at work during the day.
According to Rothfus’s aids, one of the reasons he stopped the events was because not enough people attended. Mackenzie’s note addresses one major reason behind that: most of them occurred during the work day, when many constituents couldn’t be there.
“When he’s holding 7 out of 10 of his public forums at times when his constituents are at work…and parents have children that they have to watch…it’s not doing anybody any good,” said Holsopple.
“I help run a family business, and I need to be there,” he continued. “Not only that, but I have to run a family business where the other person in that business has medical issues, and that means that they can’t be there. So I have to. So Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, doesn’t work.”
Additionally, according to Holsopple’s records, Rothfus only held one-quarter of his events in the eastern part of the district. Due to gerrymandering, it can take 2 hours to drive from one end of the district to the other, according to Google maps. This is another factor that makes it difficult for many constituents to attend Rothfus’s events.
Gerrymandering also means Rothfus doesn’t have to worry about getting re-elected, since his district leans Republican. Therefore, he has been able to get away with relying on his constituents’ votes without having to actually engage with them. “Increasingly, that just means that our representation in rural areas like this is nonexistent,” said Holsopple. “We’re not looked at as voters, we’re just looked at as the votes that turn up on election day. And then our concerns don’t need to be addressed.”
Unfortunately for Rothfus, however, the results of the 2016 election caused many people to become more involved in local politics. This means his strategy may not continue to work.
Mackenzie, for example, has become far more engaged with local politics since November. “Previous to the election of Trump, and getting more involved, the most I would do would be sign petitions, send emails, or do things on social media,” she said in a phone interview. “But now I realize that’s not enough. I think he needs to hear that there are a lot of us that disagree with what he’s doing, and we want a chance to be able to talk to him.”
In Beaver Falls on Saturday, January 14th, right before helping with a service project. Yet, when I asked how he publicized it, she said “he reached out to the community.” She was not able to give any further details.
There should be two ways to find out about the events, according to both Rothfus’s website and an aid from his Johnstown office. One, he’ll post about it on his Facebook page. And two, he’ll mention it in his e-newsletter, The Rothfus Report.
I wasn’t able to find any details about a January 14th event on Facebook. And when I questioned Holsopple about it, he hadn’t heard anything either, nor was he able to find it in the newsletter.
“As far as I saw, there was no advertisement of that,” he said. “That’s another problem. You’re not going to get anybody if you don’t tell anyone where you’re going to be.”
Fortunately, the pressure Holsopple, Mackenzie, and other constituents are putting on Rothfus seems to be working. The aids at both his Johnstown and his Ross office did say they are working on scheduling more Coffees with Keith. (No one answered when I called his Beaver County office.) Hopefully he follows through and schedules them at a time and location convenient for all his constituents—not only those who are retired or can afford to leave work early.