More than a dozen constituents showed up on a recent sunny Saturday morning to speak with U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter inside a classroom next to the dairy aisle at a Natural Grocers in Lakewood, and some enjoyed a piece of cake decorated to commemorate the occasion.
The Democrat, serving his seventh term representing the suburban 7th Congressional District, was holding his 100th "Government in the Grocery" event, the latest in a program he started in 2007, a few weeks after he was first sworn in.
They wanted to talk about everything from federal immigration policy to local job prospects. A few just wanted to visit with their congressman but wound up talking about health care policy and student loans.
A veteran showed up to thank Perlmutter for the work his staff had done to expunge some outdated information from his FBI background report. The man, who initially brought his problem to Perlmutter’s attention a couple months earlier at another Government in the Grocery event, said Perlmutter’s office had made it possible for him to apply for jobs in law enforcement and with first responders.
Alex Acks, who was attending her first Government in the Grocery, was among the last constituents Perlmutter talked with at the Lakewood Natural Grocers. She said she decided that morning to drive across Perlmutter’s district from Westminster because she had some concerns she’d been wanting to share with her congressman.
“If I want to be participatory in my own government, I need to show up, instead of just calling his office,” she said. “Though when I call Ed's office, people actually talk to me. The last time I called Ed's office was when we had another migrant die in U.S. custody. I know he can't personally do anything about it, but it's a concern.”
She said she mostly wanted to communicate her support for an impeachment inquiry aimed at Trump — something Perlmutter has said he supports, though he stops short of saying whether he thinks the House of Representatives should proceed beyond an investigation.
“The fact that Trump is spending so much time at places he owns,” Acks said, shaking her head. “There's the entire security apparatus that follows the president that then has to pay to stay at his resorts. Obviously, the Mueller report is a jumping-off point, but there's so much other stuff going on. Investigate this so we can see.”
After speaking with Perlmutter, she said she’d also talked about student loans.
“He's on the case,” Acks said. “It was definitely worth a drive. It was nice to get to meet him. I'm going to be following him in office and yelling at my friends,” she added with a smile.
“For me,” Perlmutter said after he finished talking with the last constituent who showed up for the event, “it’s about trying to stay in touch. I get out and about — I'm back and forth from D.C. every week — but these kind of things remind you of the issues people are facing.
“Sometimes they want to talk about the big stuff — peace in the Middle East or global warming or impeachment — but a lot of times it's very particular to them and their family, and they want to share something.”
At this, the 100th Government in the Grocery, he said, people wanted to talk about the typical range of topics.
“We had everything today. There were all sorts of conversations. We had conversations about climate, we had conversation about impeachment. A guy wanted to talk about employment issues. We've got an apprenticeship fair next month, and he's going to come to that,” he said. “One woman had just been shopping, and she wanted to talk about working with the disability community.”
The woman, in her 60s, Perlmutter said, had never before talked to a politician.
“'You're the first one I've talked to,’” he said she told him. “’I was just coming in to buy some yogurt.'”
Perlmutter recalled that he launched the program as a way to meet the people he was elected to represent in a comfortable place, somewhere that was accessible, in their neighborhoods, where they went every day.
Over the years, he’s held them at King Soopers and Safeway, occasionally at Sprouts, Mi Pueblo, a couple at Starbucks and a few at libraries. A spokeswoman said he’s considering venturing out to a flea market to see how that venue works.
“I started pretty soon after I took office, in 2007, and I just kept doing them,” he said. “We had times where it was rougher and times where it's just been tame, and everything in between.”
The events typically draw between two and three dozen constituents, a Perlmutter spokeswoman said, but during some particularly fraught times — at the height of the national debate in 2009, when Congress was considering the Affordable Care Act, and early in 2017 soon after President Donald Trump was inaugurated — more than 200 people would show up.
After Perlmutter’s friend, then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was wounded in a 2011 shooting that left six dead at a similar constituent outreach event in Tucson, the larger grocery chains changed their policies, so Perlmutter started holding his events at other stores, with local law enforcement on site, he said.
Giffords, who founded and runs an anti-gun violence organization that bears her name, was among 14 people injured at a Congress in Your Corner event she was holding outside a Safeway when a man opened fire on her and others in attendance.
“We used to do a lot in Kings, but after Gabby's shooting, they didn't feel comfortable with it. That's their prerogative. Safeway and Natural Grocers have been really generous and community-minded, letting us do these things,” Perlmutter said. “It's good that the law enforcement and the stores themselves have been willing to step up and help us do these.”
Perlmutter said he’s been inspired to sponsor legislation after hearing from constituents at their grocery stores, including early on in the program when a family talked about the difficulty they had getting credit for an energy-efficient home they’d built. Perlmutter carried legislation to address the issue, and the administration later incorporated the concerns in regulations.
“But more than that,” he said, “what these do is, on individual problems where they can come to talk to me about it, then my office can try to assist them. Could be some guy never got his medals from World War II or Korea or Vietnam — we've had those come through these.
“Or somebody else has really been getting the runaround from the VA, or during the foreclosure crisis, we had a lot of people coming in where they could not get in contact with anybody at any of the big banks, and they're saying, 'This is all goofed up, they promised me this and it's not happening, can you guys help?' So we've been able, through our office, to cut through red tape, with business, with government, and hopefully helpful for a lot of people who've come through this.”
As his staff helped clean up the room where they’d been meeting with constituents — equipped with a kitchen, it’s where Natural Grocers holds regular classes, including a seminar on tacos the following Saturday — Perlmutter smiled.
“We plan to keep doing these every two, three, four weeks,” he said. “We're at a hundred, which is a lot.”