Monday, March 6, 2017

Spokane's Republican and Democratic county chairs both say Congress should hold in-person town halls

Posted By on Mon, Mar 6, 2017 at 3:22 PM

On a Facebook Live event on March 3, Rep. McMorris Rodgers promised she'd do town halls — though she doesn't currently have any scheduled.
On a Facebook Live event on March 3, Rep. McMorris Rodgers promised she'd do town halls — though she doesn't currently have any scheduled.

Follow me for a moment: So a new president gets elected, and almost immediately, massive protests rise up, furious about his agenda. In particular, the protestors target "town hall" events held by members of Congress, to let their concerns be known.

At times, the events are raucous affairs, with activists excitedly sharing YouTube clips of impassioned constituents ripping into their representatives and receiving cheers from the crowd.

The party receiving the brunt of the outrage condemns the behavior of the protesters at the town hall events as "out of control," dismiss the movement as artificially organized "astroturf" rather than a true grassroots movement, and begin ducking town halls altogether.

For those tipped off by the vagueness, it's pretty obvious what I'm referring to — the Tea Party movement in 2009-2010. Their raucous town halls became iconic, and it wasn't long before Democratic legislators stopped attending town halls almost entirely.

And now, as the "Resistance" movement against Trump self-consciously adopts Tea Party tactics, and Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio — who rose up on the wings of the Tea Party movement — begin trashing town hall events as just spectacles where protesters “heckle and scream at me in front of cameras,” both sides have an opportunity to cry hypocrisy.

Recently, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has been under pressure to hold an in-person town hall, which she hasn't done since Trump's inauguration. She's done events like a telephone town hall (beset with technical difficulties), a Facebook Live event, and small in-person "Coffee with Cathy" discussions. But the clamor continues, with constituents going so far as to hold their own townhall meeting and inviting McMorris Rodgers to show up. (Her staff attended and took notes. )

Meanwhile, others have noted that Washington state's U.S. senators, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have hardly ever held town hall meetings.

So we posed the question to the chairs of the local county Republican and Democratic parties. Should everyone —Democrats and Republicans —hold in-person town hall meetings? Or has the form outlived its uselessness?

All or Nothing?

To Andrew Biviano, chair of the Spokane County Democrats, it's a no-brainer.

Yes, he says, Murray and Cantwell should do town halls as well.

"I actually have requested both of them personally, and their staff, to do that," Biviano says. He's even floated the idea of pairing up McMorris Rodgers with one of Washington's Democratic senators. And he says it's not about strategic value for one party or the other.

"I’m not interested in the tactical side of things. I’m really not," Biviano say. "I really do think town halls serve a much more important function than that."

He says it's about good government.

"There’s a lot to be gained to listen to constituents — angry or scared or happy. If you want to talk about civility in politics, there is nothing more uncivil than giving them the silent treatment."

And those who say there's no point in town halls? That's actually insulting to members of Congress, he says.

"It’s saying that [there's] no chance that new information would change their minds," he says.

Biviano argues that town halls are the best method to get through to representatives like McMorris Rodgers personally to lay out their stories.

"It needs to be a town hall," Biviano says. "Writing a letter doesn’t work. You can’t call her directly. If you go to her office, you just get staff."

Biviano calls for those on both sides of the aisle to be consistent.

"You’re not going to always be in the majority. I think Republicans want to have town halls with their representatives," Biviano says. "It’s a challenge to us and their leadership to stay true to that principle, even when it’s not in our interest. "

Spokane County GOP chair Stephanie Cates agrees that both Democrats and Republicans should hold town halls.

"If you’re going to put yourself out there as a candidate, to be elected, obviously, you have to withstand some heat from the people who are opposed to you," Cates says. "Yes, I think that is a valuable way to meet with constituents."

But it takes a lot more hemming and hawing to get to that point. She readily points to what she sees as liberal hypocrisy for those slamming McMorris Rodgers for not holding town halls recently, when they didn't do the same for Democratic legislators.

Still, she's more cautious about demanding that Republican legislators to hold meetings where they risk getting yelled at.

She supports town halls, but more reluctantly than Biviano.

While she still believes town halls are an important part of the mix of constituent relations, she wonders whether they're as effective at hearing constituent concerns as they once were.

"On the face of it, most people would say, town halls would be a great opportunity for representatives and senators to connect with constituents. Now you’re seeing abusive, disruptive behavior," Cates says about liberal activists. "They don’t want to have discussions. They want to yell and scream and shout [legislators] down, weaken their resolve to do the things that they were elected to do."

In other words, she understands the recent reticence of Republican politicians. She points to the environment at a Spokane City Council meeting a few months ago, where several attendees turned their backs to her as she was speaking and flipped her off.

"It was a very hostile environment. I had a concern for safety there," Cates says. "You feel the palpable tension and anger."

As for McMorris Rodgers? On a Facebook live event on March 3, she promised she would "do town halls in the future."

"I value the input that I get from everyone," McMorris Rodgers says. "I think it's very important for me as a representative to be listening. Listening to everyone. Listening to people from all different political persuasions. And then learning. I learn from all of those conversations."

McMorris Rodgers did not, however, have any future town halls currently scheduled.

Which Inland Northwest Politicians Hold the Most Town Halls?

A website called LegiStorm started keeping track of in-person town halls on Aug. 1, 2013. Unfortunately, that means we miss most of the Tea Party wave. And the rankings, to be clear, are imperfect. They rely on announcements in newsletters and social media and may miss a few town halls.

But it's the best tool we have to compare politicians for how accessible they've been with these events. And McMorris Rodgers is pretty middle of the road: She's held 33 in-person town halls since Aug. 1, 2013. That ranks her 51st in the LegiStorm's rankings for House members. For Washington state members of Congress, she ranks third, with Democrats Rep. Rick Larsen and Rep. Derek Kilmer ahead of her.

As for the Washington state senators?

Sen. Patty Murray has held one since Aug. 1, 2013. And Maria Cantwell isn't listed at all.

If you go to the south or the east, by contrast, you find some of the Senate's biggest leaders in holding in-person town halls.


Idaho's Sen. Mike Crapo is ranked third in all of Congress in the number of town halls he's held since mid-2013.

Rep. Raul Labrador? He's held 38 town halls since mid-2013, making him tied for 41st, right about where McMorris Rodgers is.

Sen. Jim Risch has held only two. And Rep. Mike Simpson? LegiStorm hasn't identified any in-person town halls since it started tracking.


For Democratic senators, Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon actually lead the pack, with 105 and 95 town halls, respectively, since mid-2013. If anything, Wyden's press office says, the figure undercounts how many town halls he's held over the years.

"Senator Wyden promised to hold a town hall in each of Oregon’s 36 counties out of the firm belief that hearing directly from Oregonians in every part of the state was essential to representing all of Oregon well," Wyden's office says. "After 800 town halls and counting, it’s clearer than ever this year from the incredible turnout and vocal enthusiasm for participatory democracy all over Oregon that the town hall model is alive and well, tapping a deep vein of concerns about the first few troubling weeks of this White House.”

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...