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Town Hall Meetings Connect Senators to Home

Sen. Russ Feingold refuses to let distance come between him and his Wisconsin constituents: The Democrat was in the Badger State often enough this year to hold town hall meetings at a rate of one every three days.

Feingold has held more town halls this year than any other Senator, logging 72 meetings from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, according to a review by Town hall meetings were defined as public events with the main purpose of allowing voters to question lawmakers. The more targeted appearances that Senators made at private businesses and trade associations were excluded.

Feingold, who faces a serious re-election challenge this fall from Republican Ron Johnson, said he enjoys the meetings. “It’s basically the best thing I do as a Senator,” he said. “It’s very different than a poll or phone call. It’s a far more real experience.”

For each of the past 18 years, Feingold has held at least one meeting in each of the 72 counties in his state. He reached that goal in July this time around. “I make sure I go to every county so everybody knows they can talk to me without an appointment,” he said.

Lawmakers have their own ways of conducting town hall meetings. For example, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) doesn’t classify her frequent question-and-answer sessions as town halls because they tend to be smaller and in a round-table style.

Feingold prefers informal meetings where the attendees drive the conversation. He meets with them for about an hour, calling on people randomly.

Some of his colleagues hold events on specific topics or collect questions in advance to maintain some level of control. But Feingold said his open style allows him to get a feel for the issues that matter to the community, even if it means that he gets yelled at from time to time.

Town hall meetings became the subject of much scrutiny last year, when opponents of the health care overhaul led an organized effort to disrupt meetings.

But Mitchell McKinney, a political communications professor at the University of Missouri, said those incidents were anomalies.

“The instances that we saw and heard over and over of the shouting, yelling, fingers wagged and people being removed were by far the minority of what happened at town halls,” he said.

Many lawmakers take pride in openly facing criticism and directly connecting with constituents.

But the meetings don’t always give Senators a full picture of what the community thinks. McKinney’s research shows that town hall attendees tend to be among the most politically active. “It’s not going to draw the run-of-the-mill voter,” he said. “Quite often these are individuals who are not even constituents of a certain district.”

In that sense, attendees may benefit from the town halls more than the lawmakers. The meetings give them the opportunity to directly confront lawmakers without making appointments or traveling to Washington.

The Senators get a secondary benefit, especially around election time: The town halls help them create an image of openness and of a desire to listen to constituents. But they insist that the interaction is more than a campaign strategy.

“The reason I started town meetings is because I overheard someone say at a coffee shop something along the lines of, ‘Elections must be near, the politicians are in town,'” Sen. Chuck Grassley said. “I want people to know I don’t just come for elections.”

The Iowa Republican ranks third in town hall meetings so far this year, with 48 under his belt. When he joined the Senate 29 years ago, he pledged to visit each county in his state every year.

Sen. Richard Shelby has made a similar promise. The Alabama Republican is No. 2 in this year’s rankings.

In Grassley’s case, the promise means 99 constituent meetings in Iowa annually, but not all of them qualify as town halls.

Over the years, he has perfected a style that works for him. He collects questions at the beginning and ensures that every topic gets addressed, while keeping a single activist group from dominating the meeting.

“We ain’t going to answer the same question from 10 different people,” he said.

The location of the town halls depends on the community. They are usually held in public areas such as libraries or city halls, but private companies also donate space for the public meetings.

Senators sometimes hold Q-and-A sessions on factory floors and with employees of specific companies. These forums do not qualify as town halls because they often are not advertised to the public.

Sen. John McCain held the most meetings of this type. “When companies invite him, McCain won’t turn them down. It’s a matter of trying to get people’s ears,” spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said.

McCain, who was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, has taken questions from workers at 20 Arizona businesses so far this year.

cCain is ranked No. 4 in town hall meetings, with 39. His campaign pays for the town halls. During the August recess, he sometimes scheduled several over the course of a single day.

Like Feingold, Shelby and Grassley, McCain is up for re-election this fall. But Buchanan said the re-election campaign isn’t the only reason the Senator holds the meetings.

“He does very well during town hall meetings,” she said. “It’s his favorite thing to do. During the presidential [race], when events would just get too big, he always wanted to go back to the core town hall meeting.”

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