Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Wednesday, July 24, 2024 84° Today's Paper


Looking to avoid voters’ rage, Democrats forgo town halls

BEL AIR, Md. — The reception that Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., a Democrat, received here one night last week as he faced a small group of constituents was far more pleasant than his encounters during a congressional recess last summer.

Then, he was hung in effigy by protesters. This time, a round of applause was followed by a glass of chilled wine, a plate of crackers and crudites as he mingled with an invitation-only audience at the Point Breeze Credit Union, a vastly different scene than last year’s wide-open televised free-for-alls.

The sentiment that fueled the rage during those congressional forums is still alive in the electorate. But the opportunities for voters to openly express their displeasure, or angrily vent as video cameras roll, have been harder to come by in this election year.

If the time-honored tradition of the political meeting is not quite dead, it seems to be teetering closer to extinction. Of the 255 Democrats who make up the majority in the House, only a handful held town-hall-style forums as legislators spent last week at home in their districts.

It was no scheduling accident.

With images of overheated, finger-waving crowds still seared into their minds from the discontent of last August, many Democrats heeded the advice of party leaders and tried to avoid unscripted question-and-answer sessions. The recommendations were clear: Hold events in controlled settings — a bank or credit union, for example — or tour local businesses or participate in community service projects.

And to reach thousands of constituents at a time without the worry of being snared in an angry confrontation with voters, more lawmakers are also taking part in a fast-growing trend: the telephone town meeting, where chances are remote that a testy exchange will wind up on YouTube.

For incumbents of both parties facing challenging re-election bids, few things receive more scrutiny than how, when and where they interact with voters. Many members of Congress err on the side of being visible, but not too visible, and make only a few public appearances while they are back in their districts.

In New Hampshire, where open political meetings are deeply ingrained in the state’s traditions, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s campaign website had this message for visitors: "No upcoming events scheduled. Please visit us again soon!"

Shea-Porter, a Democrat, attended a state convention of letter carriers on Saturday, but she did not hold a town-hall-style meeting during the Congressional recess. In 2006, when she was an underdog candidate for the House, she often showed up at the meetings of her Republican rival, Rep. Jeb Bradley, to question him about Iraq.

In Iowa, where voters also are accustomed to coming face to face with elected officials, Rep. Leonard L. Boswell, a Democrat, provided few opportunities for voters to see him last week. His itinerary included a groundbreaking for a new law enforcement center and a renaming ceremony for a Des Moines post office.

In Maryland, where Kratovil endured considerable heckling last year over the health care legislation, which he ultimately opposed, he did not hold any large gatherings with voters. After returning from a visit to Afghanistan, he held two events with veterans before arriving at an evening discussion here at the credit union in Bel Air, north of Baltimore.

"It’s dramatically different this break than it was in August of last year," Kratovil said in an interview after he finished speaking about financial regulatory legislation. "At town halls, there was a group of people who were there to disrupt, purely politically driven, not there because they wanted to get answers or discuss the issues."

Kratovil said seeing voters in their workplace, or in casual settings like soccer fields, actually provided a broader sampling of public opinion than simply holding formal town-hall-style meetings, which often attract only political activists.

An examination of public schedules for dozens of members of Congress last week showed that more House Republicans held open meetings, including several in a series of forums called America Speaking Out, which is intended to help write the party’s agenda if it wins control of Congress in November.

The anger that erupted at meetings last summer — focused, particularly, on the health care legislation — helped draw attention to Tea Party activists. A year later, some of the images are resurfacing once again and will almost certainly be used against lawmakers in television advertisements over the next five months.

Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who has represented a wide part of southwestern Virginia for 28 years, has often encountered fierce criticism during his sessions with voters. But he said it was worth listening to the critiques, which often sound nearly identical as he travels across the 23 counties of his district.

"Obviously the town meetings are magnets for people who have a political agenda, but it’s worth putting up with the talking-point-induced political dialogue to get good ideas," said Boucher, who was one of the few Democrats last week who did hold a wide-open meeting, which took place Saturday at the high school in Floyd, Va.

"I guess I’m old-fashioned," said Boucher, adding that he preferred visiting with voters in person rather than communicating with them through "tele-town-hall" meetings, a sort of conference call that can include thousands of homes that has been on the rise since the technology was first used in 2006. "I have no plans of changing my approach to this."

Rep. Tom Perriello, a first-term Virginia Democrat, held 21 open meetings last August during the heat of the health care debate. He said that each of the sessions lasted an average of five hours, often ending well after midnight.

"We thought that the best strategy was to let people talk," Perriello said. "It was important to stay until people had everything off of their minds."

Not last week. The meetings were traded for other stops in Perriello’s central Virginia district, including an elementary school that received broadband Internet through the economic stimulus plan. He also dropped by several businesses, hoping to take the pulse on what he said were the chief issues for his constituents: jobs and the economy.

Without so many lengthy meetings on his agenda, he said he had more time for impromptu encounters with voters. Constituents who were following along received updated information on Twitter, including this bulletin just before lunchtime one day: "Now stopping for a hot dog at Moore’s Country Store!"


Comments are closed.