Instead, GOP lawmaker schedules theme-based ’tours’ that focus on specific issues and aren’t open to general public
The Elkhart Truth (use this link to see “comments” from 21 individuals)
By Tim Vandenback
ELKHART — U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski regularly returns to the 2nd District and her Jimtown home from Washington, D.C.
She recently finished the last of three tours in the district focused on government regulation, health care and education.
“Right now, in this little block of time that we have, we want to make sure we get into every single county, and to all parts of the district, and make sure that we’re accessible to everybody in the district,” Walorski said Tuesday on her education tour. “I think we’re really accessible.”
What she didn’t do while in the district, however, was hold a traditional town hall meeting — where members of the public can simply show up and speak out about whatever is on their minds. In fact, it has been more than two years since the Republican legislator hosted her one and only town hall meeting — on Aug. 21, 2013.
While Walorski has taken part in her issue-themed tours, some grumble that such gatherings, typically involving visits with pre-screened constituents, aren’t enough.
“Congresswoman Walorski has done a manufacturing tour, a farming tour, an education tour. But she has yet to hold a town hall forum,” said Chad Crabree, secretary of the Elkhart County Democratic Party and a candidate for Elkhart City Council in November. “Why can’t I talk to the person the residents voted for?”
To be sure, Walorski will meet with constituents who hold a wide range of views. She or staff members, for instance, have met in her Mishawaka office on varied occasions with representatives from the North Central Indiana AFL-CIO Council, fielding the group’s calls for immigration reform and a raise in the minimum wage.
But Tony Flora, president of the labor group, says meeting organized groups like his that represent a defined constituency is one thing. Meeting with rank-and-file constituents who don’t have the backing of a larger organization like his — letting them ask their questions, air their concerns and have their say — is another.
Yes, town hall meetings have the potential to get unruly, he acknowledges. “On the other hand, the general public should have the opportunity to say, ’Let’s talk about these important issues,’” Flora said.
On the flip side politically, Dale Stickel, former head of the Elkhart County Republican Party, said Walorski’s predecessor, Joe Donnelly, a Democrat and now a U.S. senator, didn’t seem to have very many town hall meetings. The heads of the Elkhart County and St. Joseph County Republican parties, Mary Nisly and Roy Saenz, didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
POLITICS ’CRUDER, MORE OUTSPOKEN’
Some in the national media announced the demise of the town hall meeting back in 2013, around the time Walorski held her last one in Rochester.
The New York Times, for one, reported in 2013, that a push by tea party groups dating to 2009 to confront lawmakers at town hall events seemed to result in “fewer members of Congress now willing to face their constituents.” The article was headlined, “A former engine of the GOP, the town hall meeting, cools down.”
“I think, generally, politics has become, I don’t know, cruder, more outspoken,” said Sean Savage, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College in South Bend.
The upshot at a town hall meeting can be an “uncontrolled audience,” Savage said, and uncomfortable confrontations between angry constituetents and a lawmaker. Add the advent of social media and instantly uploadable video to the mix, and an awkward moment or inartful statement can be broadcast on places like YouTube for all the world to see.
Still, it’s not so clear-cut that town hall meetings, in fact, are on the wane as a political institution.
“It’s hard to measure that scientifically,” said Noah Wall, the national director of grassroots for FreedomWorks, a conservative group based in Washington, D.C., that pushes for smaller government. Many lawmakers have them, he said, but only publicize them locally, so it’s hard to gauge their frequency on a national level.
FreedomWorks pushed for town hall meetings across the country back in August 2013, when Walorski had hers, as part of the group’s push at the time for Congress to defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The group still advocates for the town hall format, and Wall suggested lawmakers should have at least one per year in each of the major cities they represent.
‘SEE HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE’
Walorski defended the themed tours she typically conducts on varied topics as a means to connect with the public. She makes it a point to visit each of the 10 north-central Indiana counties within her district.
“The tours that we do have been so successful. We can see hundreds of people all over the district, north, south, east, west,” she said during the education tour stop at Roosevelt STEAM Academy. On her three recent tours, dating to Aug. 12, she visited seven businesses, two farms and 10 schools, not to mention a hospital, a health medical clinic and three other facilities on the health care tour.
She hinted, vaguely, at the possibility of different sorts of district activities, or more of them, though not specifically a town hall meeting. “It’s just trying to make the logistics work, and we continue to work on packing more into the schedule when I’m home,” she said.
The Jefferson Center of St. Paul, Minn., which aims to promote citizen involvement in crafting of public policy, questions the value of town hall meetings. Typically, participants don’t represent a balanced cross-section of constituents, but rather, those who may feel strongly on an issue, said Andrew Rockway, program manager for the group.
Rather, the Jefferson Center advocates use of what it calls citizen juries, groups representing the demographics of an area that meet in controlled settings to get expert input on an issue and come up with recommended solutions.
Many other observers, though, are adamant on the importance of town hall meetings, allowing the public to interact one-on-one with their elected federal representatives, size them up personally. Even as Crabtree and Wall touted the import of civility, Savage said discomfort from pointed questions comes with the territory.
“That may be uncomfortable and difficult and embarrassing for the elected official. But frankly, that’s part of the job,” Savage said.
Indeed, worse than the discomfort a politician may experience by having a town hall meeting is the disconnect by not having one. Avoiding such gatherings is “a further distancing between elected officials and constituents,” he said.