One of Kelli Meyer’s priority issues this election is mental health.
Meyer has worked in suicide prevention for almost a decade. It’s an issue that strikes close to home for the Hutto resident.
“I became involved in suicide prevention because I lost my father to suicide when I was 14,” she said. “After years of realizing if our politicians didn’t want to do the work to change the mental health conversation, nothing would change. I knew I had to get involved with a local campaign.”
So she decided to ask Donna Imam, a Democrat running for Texas’ 31st Congressional District, what she would do about mental health and if she would speak with families who have lost loved ones to these illnesses, according to a screenshot of her questions.
Meyer’s questions were deleted.
“I’ve worked in the suicide prevention field for nearly 10 years and I’ve never seen a candidate behaving this way — especially with advocacy-related questions,” said Meyer, whom Imam had blocked from her campaign Facebook page in January after asking if the candidate would attend town halls.
Meyer is among at least 36 people who Imam — a first-time candidate —blocked on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram after asking questions on the campaign’s social media accounts. They recently formed a Facebook group called “Donna Imam Blocks Constituents.”
The exact number the Democrat — who is challenging nine-term U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock — has blocked is unknown. Only the people who have access to the accounts can see an extensive list of blocked users.
Imam’s campaign did not respond to a Telegram request to comment, but she emphasized contact with voters during an earlier interview.
“We’re going to be able to beat John Carter because we know how to have direct voter contact and have conversations and have the infrastructure in place,” Imam said in a late June interview with the Telegram.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the national group charged with electing more Democrats to the U.S. House — did not respond to Telegram requests to comment. Chris Rosenberg, the Bell County Democratic Party chairman, declined to comment during a phone call.
“Congressman Carter has been working tirelessly and has been delivering results for Central Texans. (The) judge is part of this community and is here whenever he isn’t voting in Washington,” the Carter campaign said in a statement. “When he is not fighting for TX-31 in Congress, he’s home meeting with Texans from Williamson and Bell counties to hear directly from them what they need.”
“He believes it’s important to hear from ALL of his constituents, regardless of their political views.”
Heather Snaman, a Round Rock resident, also was blocked. She messaged Imam to attend a Round Rock school board meeting to have trustees consider renaming a local elementary school and change their mascot.
“I messaged with Donna directly on Facebook and she promised she would be there to show support,” Snaman said.
Imam didn’t show up, Snaman said, or respond when asked why.
“The next time I tried to reach out to her I found that she had blocked me from her personal account — how we’d previously communicated — as well as her campaign page,” Snaman said. “All of our communication had been professional and pleasant, so I was really confused and upset that this had happened.”
Meyer said she saw Imam RSVP to events and not show up.
“I emailed the campaign to explain how important it was to be representative of this district since our current congressman doesn’t show up,” Meyer said. “That got me blocked.”
Snaman ultimately volunteered for the campaign of Imam’s runoff opponent, Dr. Christine Eady Mann, who lost the race on July 14. Snaman acknowledged her political views are more in line with Imam’s than Mann’s.
“Since then, I’ve also been frustrated with her no-showing at in-person and virtual town halls, or showing up to give a stump speech and then immediately disconnecting to avoid questions,” the Round Rock resident said of Imam.
During the primary, the Austin American-Statesman reported Imam was often the sole primary contender to skip candidate forums and even declined to talk about her bid to the newspaper’s editorial board if her opponents were there.
“We’re not interested in being contrasted with other campaigns,” Imam reportedly told the Statesman.
1st Amendment rights
Federal courts — including district courts in 10 states, the Court of Appeals for 2nd and 4th Circuits and the Supreme Court — have overwhelmingly said the First Amendment applies to virtual forums, such as Facebook, in the same way it does to government meetings and town halls, according to the State Bar of Texas.
“Moreover, this constitutional protection will also apply to personal sites belonging to elected officials when they are administered to perform public duties and are inextricably linked to their public office,” lawyers John G. Browning and Reginald A. Hirsch wrote in a recent article for the State Bar.
Browning and Hirsch pointed out elected officials across the political spectrum and at all levels have silenced critics on social media.
“But as court after court has acknowledged, such digital spaces need not be echo chambers where officials are insulated from criticism or accountability,” the Texas lawyers said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 2017’s Packingham v. North Carolina, not only does the First Amendment apply to ‘commonplace social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter,’ but ‘to foreclose access to social media … is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.’”
‘Delete her social media accounts’
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the group tasked to help elect GOP candidates to the U.S. House, was blunt about Imam blocking voters.
“If Donna Imam doesn’t want voters to know that she’s a socialist, it’d be more efficient for her to delete her social media accounts rather than block folks individually,” NRCC spokesman Bob Salera said.
Imam also has blocked opponents on social media. Mann, her runoff opponent, and Independent candidate Jeremy Bravo have said in tweets that Imam has blocked them.
“The #TX31 race is far from over. This race will be historic for a variety of reasons,” Bravo tweeted on July 14. “Can you NOW unblock me from Twitter @donnaimamtx?”
‘She ignored my question’
Cedar Park resident Christine Acheson is another voter who Imam blocked on Facebook.
“I have a nerdy hobby of looking at politicians’ (Federal Election Commission) and ethics filings, because I almost always find things that don’t add up or some kind of unethical behavior,” she said.
She noticed something in Imam’s campaign finance reports: Her campaign had disbursed funds to a Republican.
Campaign finance reports show Imam’s campaign paid more than $710 to the John Salvador Bohlin for Congress committee between Feb. 4 through May 30.
“I obviously thought this was very strange, and I thought I would just ask her. So I went to her Facebook campaign page, and made a comment under her most recent post, saying ‘I noticed you made two payments to the John Bohlin campaign, can you explain why?’” said Acheson, a Democrat who is active in party politics. “My comment was deleted right away, and then I was no longer able to comment or send a message to the page.”
Acheson tried asking the same question on Twitter — blocked again. She kept asking.
“Donna Imam participated in a virtual Dem Happy Hour event, and I submitted a question to Donna again, asking why she made the payments to the John Bohlin campaign,” Acheson said. “And she ignored my question as well as all other questions.”
‘Very little faith’
It will take a lot of effort for Imam to earn the votes of Meyer, Snaman and Acheson.
“At this point, it would take her directly answering questions and showing a good-faith effort to truly represent this district. Time and time again she has proven that we can’t count on her,” Meyer said. “At this point, I have very little faith she’ll gain the trust of any of us because her behavior is so habitual — it’s extremely concerning and problematic.”
Snaman wants Imam to unblock everyone, issue an apology and begin working to repair voters’ trust by engaging with District 31 residents and their concerns.
Acheson agreed, adding she wants Imam to explain her payments to the Bohlin campaign.
“There are so many of us who really do want to be on her team, we want to work for the coordinated campaign to turn Texas and our district blue, but by alienating some of our most active and outspoken activists (she is) blowing her chances for a win and dragging others down with her,” Snaman said.
All three are weighing their options on how to cast their vote on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Acheson will abstain from voting in the congressional race, which also includes Libertarian Party nominee Clark Patterson.
“I can’t in good conscience vote for Donna Imam,” she said.
Meyer is considering either writing in Mann’s name or leaving the race blank.
“I’ve never done that before in my life but that’s how strongly I feel about this,” Meyer said. “At this point, John Carter is voting absent on a lot. If Donna wins, we’ll never get her out. I’d rather try again in two years for a true progressive candidate that will actually work for us.”
Likewise, Snaman said she is considering the unthinkable.
“I don’t do this lightly — I disagree with most of what our current rep, John Carter, stands for,” Snaman said. “I never imagined I’d consider supporting him over the Dem nominee, but here I am.”
‘More of the same’
There is a sense of irony about this situation.
Democrats in District 31 for years have painted Carter as inaccessible. They often point to him not holding town halls as their reasoning.
Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, now the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent John Cornyn, ran a campaign for Carter’s seat in 2018 that centered on that issue.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently has said Carter “ignores constituents.”
And now it seems the tables have turned.
“Absolutely. One-hundred percent,” Meyer said, agreeing that Imam is inaccessible. “And she’ll be an inaccessible congressperson, should she win. That makes her more of the same with just a ‘D’ beside her name.”