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Town Hall Events Provide Pitfalls at Home

Once-Popular Meeting Style Helped Sweep Republican Wave Into Office in '10

Angry voters confronting Members of Congress at town hall events – especially in August 2009 and 2010 over a Democratic health care bill – helped provide momentum that the GOP rode to control of the House.

Two years later, another August recess has passed and there are signs that some of those Republican lawmakers swept into power from that election are scaling back the opportunities for voters to confront them at such events.

For example, a handful of Republicans in vulnerable seats held no town-hall-type events in August. Some haven’t held an event billed as a “town hall” in more than six months.

In many cases, lawmakers are opting for smaller, more low-key events that limit opportunities for political opponents to organize attendance.

Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), who held plenty of events, but no town halls, in August, offered a reason for not scheduling such events during this recess.

“It isn’t possible for me to hold a town hall meeting right now. … If I held a town hall meeting after the filing period, Democrats would all scream” that I was using federal funds to campaign, Bass said. “Heck, I did it when I ran against Dick Swett in 1994. He held a town meeting in August or September.”

Bass went on to defeat Swett that year and held his seat until 2006, when Democrat Paul Hodes defeated him. He reclaimed the seat in 2010, beating Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, whom he faces again this November.

“We’re seeing a lot of events where Members only announce it happened after the event is over, meaning that constituents don’t know about it in advance and can’t plan to be there,” a Democratic operative said.

Many Republicans, for their part, say they are fighting professional Democratic activists who have “hijacked” the town halls they once held from the constituents they are supposed to serve.

But with anger from the “ugly” tea party town halls of the last Congress still lingering, Democrats call the explanation a lame excuse.

It’s easy to forget the significant role town halls played in the 2010 elections, when dozens of GOP challengers rode the momentum to victory.

For instance, freshman Rep. Chris Gibson’s opponent, then-Rep. Scott Murphy (D), had visited more than 100 towns in the New York district to meet with voters.

But Gibson demanded joint town halls with Murphy, which Murphy declined to attend.

“Apparently Congressman Murphy does not want to share his views side by side with me before the voters,” Gibson said in a press release then. “Maybe it is because Mr. Murphy has cornered us with his votes for more spending, for higher taxes on small businesses and for authorizing the government takeover of our health care.”

Now an incumbent, Gibson has advertised no events billed as “town halls” on his Congressional website in 2012.

It’s not that Gibson isn’t busy doing events in the district. His Facebook page catalogs his myriad appearances at parades, parties and the like. And Stephanie Valle, his spokeswoman, said Gibson did two “town hall style” question-and-answer sessions in August with groups of farmers in the district.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) was particularly aggressive about using the 2010 town hall dustups to his advantage. For instance, he joined dozens of angry voters who demanded a town hall during then-Rep. Patrick Murphy’s office hours at his district office.

At the time, Fitzpatrick attacked Murphy for calling small events “town halls.”

“What I think a town hall meeting is, is when you put out the word to a community a week ahead of time, you secure a location and you tell people it’s either a general town hall meeting on any issue or a specific town hall meeting on an issue like health care, and you let everybody speak,” he said then.

By that standard, Fitzpatrick didn’t hold any town halls in August, although he did go to a retirement home and answer questions from about 120 seniors about Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney added the Wisconsin lawmaker to the Republican ticket.

Fitzpatrick’s chief of staff, Athan Koutsiouroumbas, said the Pennsylvania Republican has been contending with aggressive liberal activists who have used profanity and aggressive tones in attempts to provoke Fitzpatrick.

At a recent fair, a man with a video camera behaved belligerently as Fitzpatrick was eating ice cream with his children. Eileen Silver, a local official, was bruised on the arm after trying to place herself between the man and Fitzpatrick, according to a police report of the complaint she filed.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who has been attacked by Democrats over his fundraising and other ethics issues, has pretty much stopped doing town hall events. Spokeswoman Carol Danko said he has found voters “prefer” smaller events such as block parties and tele-town halls to interact with their Congressman.

The tele-town hall, in which thousands of voters participate in a kind of large-scale conference call with officials, has become popular among lawmakers. All of the Representatives contacted for this story mentioned their use of these events to communicate with constituents.

The appeal is the potential to reach more voters at less cost than is possible by holding an in-person town hall.

But in the 2010 cycle, the use of virtual town halls was met with accusations from tea party activists that the events were a cop-out meant to insulate lawmakers from voters.

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