The mayor of South Miami and former mayor of Pinecrest hoisted a dark suit on a hanger into the air between them, and the crowd of nearly 300 people jeered and laughed.
Someone threw a wad of cash on the table, nearly hitting the paper name tag identifying the invisible man as Senator Marco Rubio. Philip Stoddard, of South Miami, stuffed the bills in a suit pocket and held a water bottle near the lapels.
A man from the overflow crowd outside shouted from the open doors: “It’s an empty chair. We deserve better than an empty chair.”
He, and hundreds of other activists, gathered in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami in Glenvar Heights Thursday night for a town hall meeting without their elected official.
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Congress is in recess this week, so some representatives — including Florida Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Dennis Rossuse — use the break to hold town hall meetings. Rubio’s office said he was in Europe on senate business this week and wouldn’t be attending any, but activists found the senator twice on Thursday after his return and posted videos of the confrontation online.
An organizer from Indivisible, an anti-President Donald Trump group, said he emailed Rubio an invitation days earlier. Some protestors said they personally called the office that morning and invited him.
Rubio’s press secretary, Matt Wolking, did not address the event, but spoke against one of the organizations that hosted the event — pro-choice group NARAL.
“These left wing abortion extremists may deny the science of when unborn children feel pain, and support abortions at any time before birth, but Senator Rubio believes there is no human right more fundamental than the right to life, and every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws.”
Abortion was one of dozens of topics covered by the crowd Thursday evening, which began with breakout sessions where the attendees discussed topics ranging from immigration to education and Trump’s conflicts of interest. Each small group decided on questions they wanted to ask Rubio and volunteered one member to approach the microphone and “ask” the empty chair.
“He’s employed by us. He needs to represent us,” said Janet Thornton of Hollywood. “He’s not just representing Republicans. He’s representing the whole state.”
Also included on the panel were Stoddard, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen-Gonzalez, former Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner and Justin Klecha, the deputy director of LGBT organization SAVE.
Representatives from the crowd called Rubio to act on a range of tropics: the release of Trump’s tax returns, keeping the Affordable Care Act, speaking out against Trump’s travel ban and more legal protections for LGBTQ people.
Mike Williams, of Indivisible Miami, promised to send a transcript of the evening to Rubio’s office. Rosen-Gonzalez said she would introduce a resolution at Miami Beach’s next city commission meeting to send the requests straight to the senator’s office.
At the end of the night, each elected official and organizer made the same plea to the rowdy crowd: get involved.
“If the right people don’t run for office, the wrong ones will,” Cindy Lerner said. “And they do, and they’re there.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Cindy Lerner. She is the former mayor of Pinecrest.