A crowd with graying hair sat along child-sized benches in the Pearlridge Elementary School cafeteria on a drizzly Thursday night listening to Hawaii Congressman Ed Case talk about the sense of tragedy he feels for the country as the U.S. House of Representatives embarks on impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Residents had come to hear the latest on the impeachment inquiry and other matters happening some 5,000 miles away in the nation’s capital. They also came to talk to Case about their concerns that helicopters were flying too low over residential neighborhoods, that not enough was being done to address the Navy’s aging Red Hill fuel tanks that sit uncomfortably close to a major source of Oahu’s drinking water, and to relay their anxiety about climate change’s effects on the Hawaiian Islands.
Hundreds of these informal town hall meetings with members of Congress play out across small towns and cities every year. They’re a chance for constituents to talk face to face with their representatives and, usually, ask unfiltered questions.
Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation sometimes dodge them, however, according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser analysis of the delegation’s three-year track records.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono held two town halls in 2017, while U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard held seven that year.
However, neither Hirono nor Gabbard has held a town hall since 2017.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has held four so far this year. He held none in 2018 and six in 2017.
Case, who took office in January, has held 10 so far this year.
The Star-Advertiser included only in-person town halls in Hawaii that are open to the general public and not focused on specific constituencies, such as veterans or seniors.
Town halls are a long-held political tradition, but in the age of online, viral news, they can also pose a risk for politicians worried about unscripted fumbles or so-called “gotcha moments.”
“I think that there are certain members of Congress that either don’t like it or they think it’s risky, and we don’t think those are good reasons not to do your job hearing from constituents,” said Nathan Williams, executive director of the Town Hall Project, which tracks how many town halls members of Congress hold.
In 2018 there was a big dip overall in the number of town halls throughout the the country. Williams said Republicans grew skittish as they faced constituents angry about attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. But this year the numbers of town halls are back up among both parties with members of Congress holding more than 2,100 town halls through mid- September, according to research conducted by the Town Hall Project.
“It’s something that just makes our democracy stronger and makes our elected officials understand the actual wants and needs of their constituents that much better,” Williams said.
The Town Hall Project has asked all members of Congress to commit to holding at least four town hall meetings annually.
Hirono, who has held the fewest town halls of Hawaii’s congressional delegation over the past three years, said the events are just one way she stays in touch with constituents.
“I make it a point to meet people where they are because my advocacy for my constituents is vastly enhanced when I can meet them where they work and see what they’re doing every day in the community,” Hirono said in a statement.
Hirono said she hosts hundreds of Hawaii residents every year in Washington, D.C., for her Tuesday “Talk Story” sessions. She also noted that in August she participated in an open forum in Honolulu on immigration and in April participated in the Kauai Chamber of Commerce’s Women Leading With Impact Conference.
Schatz did not respond to a question about why he hadn’t held any town halls in 2018. But he did hold a “telephone town hall” that year in which constituents could call in, a format that Gabbard and Case have also employed.
In addition to the four regular town halls Schatz held this year, he also held one specifically for students at Kaimuki High School.
Gabbard, who like Hirono has not held a town hall in Hawaii since 2017, has been busy on the presidential campaign trail this year. She’s held dozens of town halls and events in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and California, and on Friday had a town hall in Charleston, S.C.
Williams said many of the active presidential candidates have not held a town hall in their own state or district this year. He said candidates such as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker used to hold them pretty frequently.
“To a certain degree it is understandable that they are in Iowa and New Hampshire and places like that all of the time,” Williams said. “But at the same time, they are still in office and they are still representing their district, so we do think it is important that they make some time for their current constituents, not just the future voters they’re trying to court.”
A spokesman for Gabbard said the congresswoman and her staff have held numerous other events in addition to town halls over the past three years, such as outreach events and federal grants workshops.
“Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and her team are always working hard for the people of the second congressional district, engaging constituents through a variety of channels that work best for this geographically diverse district,” said T. Ilihia Gionson, Gabbard’s Hawaii communications director.
Case has surpassed the rest of the Hawaii delegation in holding local town halls. Last year Case also walked the entire 1st Congressional District, from Makapuu through Honolulu, up to Mililani Mauka and then back down through Waipahu, Ewa and Kapolei to Kahe as part of his campaign to win his seat.
“I think that discussions like this are so incredibly important in a democracy, in general, and they’re so incredibly important especially when your country is going through a tough time,” Case told constituents during his Pearlridge town hall.
TOWN HALL TALLY
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz
>> 2017: 6
>> 2018: 0
>> 2019: 4
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono
>> 2017: 2
>> 2018: 0
>> 2019: 0
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
>> 2017: 7
>> 2018: 0
>> 2019: 0
U.S. Rep. Ed Case
>> 2019: 10
The tally of town halls includes in-person events open to the general public and not focused on a specific constituency.