No town halls with Herrera Beutler

Congresswoman’s staff inviting small groups to ‘coffees’ while she’s home

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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The town hall Jaime Herrera Beutler held in Vancouver in May.

The town hall Herrera Beutler held in Battle Ground in February.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has been back in her Southwest Washington district for most of the month of August, but the freshman Republican has scheduled no town hall meetings.

And some of her constituents are asking why.

“I’d love to talk to her about the debt limit,” said Jan Watson, a high school teacher in Rochester. “I’d like to have her listen to people. In a town hall, when somebody asks a question and the person responds, you can get a real good fact check by the groans. That gives a real indication that your comment isn’t quite right or isn’t reflecting the community.”

Watson said she encourages her students to attend politicians’ town hall meetings so they can experience democracy up close.

“The real underlying reason this congressional district has not seen public meetings is that the congresswoman is aware enough of the real world to understand that Congress, in general, is not held in high esteem,” said Tom Shofner of Kalama in an email. “If we add to that her allegiance to the far right, … she just doesn’t feel at home any more in this area, I think.”

Michele Molstead, a Vancouver writer, visited Herrera Beutler’s district office several times during the August break trying to find out whether she planned to hold a town hall, and if so, when and where.

“They kept saying, ‘Nothing has been scheduled yet, we haven’t firmed up any town halls yet,’ ” she said. “They told me the best place to get information about her events during recess was The Columbian.”

Molstead said she had hoped to ask Herrera Beutler what steps she is willing to take to raise revenue, encourage job creation and fund new infrastructure.

“I think it is possible to have civil discourse and to have a detailed, sound-bite-free conversation with my representative,” she said. “I think her constituents deserve that.”

Ryan Hart, manager of Herrera Beutler’s district office in Vancouver, said the congresswoman “has been trying something different this month, which is to hold community meetings at coffee shops around the district.”

So far, he said, she has held coffees in Amboy, Camas, Cathlamet, Stevenson and Tenino. “She’s trying to get out into the district and hit some of the spots that haven’t had a town hall.”

Her staff has not made the schedule of these community meetings available to the press, nor has it posted them on Herrera Beutler’s congressional website. Visitors to the site are invited to send her their telephone number so they can be alerted when a coffee is scheduled nearby.

Hart said the meetings haven’t been publicized in advance because “a coffee shop can accommodate only so many people.”

Herrera Beutler also has held at least one telephone town hall during the break and plans to hold another, Hart said. At these events, people get automated telephone calls offering them a chance to ask their congresswoman a question. “If you are home and pick up the phone, you can participate,” he said.

That’s no substitute for a real town hall, Watson said. “On a tele-town hall, there is no chance for feedback. And it ties up the phone.”

Actual town halls offer a chance to share views and experiences, Watson said. “It’s educational.” She said she always learns something new.

Herrera Beutler has spoken before private clubs during the recess, including Vancouver Rotary on Aug. 10 But those events aren’t open to the public. She has also held a “listening session” with business leaders, and has scheduled another with health care providers on Monday. Both are by invitation only.

Tough audience

Since taking office, the congresswoman has held two town halls in Clark County — one Feb. 3 in Battle Ground and another May 17 in Vancouver. At the Vancouver event, she fielded angry questions about her support for restructuring Medicare and endured catcalls over her vote for the controversial Republican 10-year budget blueprint that included the Medicare language.

The August break came on the heels of the debt limit debate. Voters had spent weeks watching Congress take the nation to the brink of default on the national debt as Republican leaders insisted on trillions of dollars in spending cuts as a condition for raising the debt ceiling. Herrera Beutler endorsed that stance. Many of her constituents were eager to quiz her about her vote.

She’s not the only member of Congress who opted out of holding town halls this month. Many are hosting smaller events focused on jobs or local issues. When Sen. Patty Murray visited Vancouver this month, it was to hold a forum on veterans’ issues — though she’d just been named to co-chair the 12-member supercommittee charged with finding $1.5 trillion in federal spending cuts over the next 10 years. Among Washington’s congressional delegation, Reps. Dave Reichert, Jim McDermott and Jay Inslee, and Sen. Maria Cantwell all decided to forgo town halls this month, according to the Seattle Times.

Liberal talk-show host Tom Hartmann said in a recent video that lawmakers are “cowering from angry voters.” He showed snippets of irate citizens at town hall meetings demanding to know why Congress won’t raise taxes on the rich.

The Kansas City Star interviewed members of that state’s delegation and found they had mixed views on the value of town hall meetings in an era of confrontational politics.

“Both sides are basically trying to stack the crowd,” Carl Bearden, director of a conservative grassroots organizing group, told the newspaper. “The nature of it is, it becomes more of a political stage, which is totally unfortunate.”

Like Herrera Beutler, some Kansas lawmakers were scheduling meetings in smaller communities where TV cameras were less likely to show up and provocative video clips were less likely to pop up on YouTube.

Hart said 150 people packed the Camas coffee shop where Herrera Beutler held one of her coffees. “Obviously she gave an update as to what was going on in Congress and the debt ceiling vote,” he said, but many of her constituents’ questions concerned local issues.

The congresswoman will hold future town halls, Hart said.

As of last week, however, none were scheduled.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.