The video of a white-bearded, bespectacled man in a T-shirt yelling and thrusting his finger in Sen. Arlen Specter’s face during a town hall meeting last August has become an iconic personification of voter rage.
The outrage that the Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat faced boiled across the country during the debate over health care reform and still simmers heading into the midterm elections.
As the August recess approaches, some have speculated that Democrats are leery of becoming, like Specter, the baffled face at the end of the angry finger.
“Republicans will no doubt be listening to as many voters as possible this August recess, but the question is, how many Democrats will have the guts to do the same knowing full well that they’ll be forced to defend policies that Americans have rejected?” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said.
So far, the answer is: a lot.
Democrats — and Republicans as well — have held more in-person town hall meetings this year than they had by this time last year, according to a database maintained by Knowlegis, which tracks Congressional data. Knowlegis is part of the CQ-Roll Call Group.
Through June 16, Members have attended more than 920 in-person town halls, 50 more than the first six months of last year. Democrats have accounted for about 490 town hall meetings; Republicans have held roughly 430.
“The candidates hold them because they think they’re supposed to. Because this is an age of participatory democracy,” said Stephen Wayne, professor of American government at Georgetown University. “But instead of being a vehicle for the candidate to show how democratic he or she is, what they get back is a lot of anger on the part of the public.”
The database cannot provide exact numbers because Members sometimes hold last-minute meetings without formal announcements. Telephone or online town halls have also grown in popularity over the last few years, but they are harder to track.
The most prolific House Democratic town-haller is Rep. Mike Ross, with 34 so far this year.
“There are a lot of people that are upset,” the conservative Arkansas lawmaker said. “But I haven’t had that many people at the meetings that are upset or angry at me.”
Then again, he added, if he had voted for health care reform or climate change legislation, they probably would be. On the other hand, he said he sees the public meetings as a chance to explain tougher votes, such as his “yes” vote on the stimulus bill.
“It gives you a chance to sometimes set the record straight because a lot of times all that people know is what they read in an e-mail or on the Internet,” he said.
But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is the town hall king. The Wisconsin Republican has held 72 face-to-face town halls so far this year, more than any other Member by far.
His spokeswoman, Wendy Riemann, said Sensenbrenner annually hits triple digits in town halls, which his constituents come to expect. His conservative views, and Wisconsinites’ cool demeanor, keep the meetings relatively tame, she said.
“There’s anger, but it’s the same anger that Jim is expressing against the government,” Riemann said. “I don’t think we’ve had some of the things that we see on TV, where you have the crazy protesters.”
The Senate town-hall title is also held by a Wisconsinite; Sen. Russ Feingold (D) will hold his 69th face-to-face meeting today.
Sen. Chuck Grassley runs second to Feingold with 37 town halls so far this year. Both Senators are facing re-election.
Grassley “says it’s a way to quantify for the people you represent that you respect the public trust you hold with them and that you’re committed to doing the work the people elect you to do,” said the Iowa Republican’s spokeswoman, Jill Kozeny.
Though Democrats have not fled the town hall, the data do show a drop-off in town halls compared with the last election year.
In 2008, the year voters last went to the polls nationally, Members held more than 1,300 in-person town hall meetings through mid-June — roughly 690 by Democrats and about 610 by Republicans, according to the Knowlegis data.
In off years, Members tend to hold more town halls at the end of the year, while in election years, the in-person meetings tend to occur in the first six months.
Brendan Buck, a House GOP leadership aide, said that’s because of the “blackout period,” the 90 days before a primary or election when Members are restricted from sending mass mailings in order to prevent taxpayer money from being spent on campaign activity.
“You’re confined to earned media and your subscriber e-mail list to get the word out,” Buck said. “A lot of people [otherwise] get the word out about town halls through franked mail.”
“Many folks like to do town halls on weekdays instead of weekends, and when we’re in D.C., that’s hard to do,” Buck added. “That’s why you see a lot of town halls over Memorial Day recess or August recess.”
As the year wears on, Members are likely to pull back on the unscripted public meetings in favor of more carefully crafted campaign events — a trend that Wayne said makes perfect sense.
“If you have an election, the campaign itself and the rallies take the place of the town meeting,” he said. “Town hall meetings are more neutral instrument, a more neutral meeting place.”
Correction: June 21, 2010
The article, citing a Knowlegis database, misstated the number of in-person town-hall meetings that Sen. Russ Feingold has held so far in 2010. The Wisconsin Democrat held his 69th town hall on Monday, according to his office.