Friday, August 19, 2022
Aug. 19, 2022

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Press Talk: Those pesky town halls


It wasn’t a Nigerian prince on the other end of the phone, offering me a million bucks. But it was close.

Instead it was a robocall inviting me to one of those Jaime Herrera Beutler telephone town hall meetings.

Oh I could use the million bucks, but for a political geek like me, this invitation was a windfall! I would find out later anyone could get in on these phone town halls, but for a few seconds I felt special.

Our Republican congresswoman’s phone town hall meetings have taken on a sort of cult status for me. Why? Well, in my view, in the last election they almost booted Herrera Beutler from her once-comfortable seat. Her Democratic opponent — newcomer Carolyn Long — hammered away at these phone meetings and it almost worked.

OK, OK, the telephone town hall meetings weren’t technically the issue. The issue was Herrera Beutler using conference calls to talk with constituents instead of in-person town halls.

So why have Herrera Beutler and many other politicians backed away from in-person town halls? Well, many compare them to Wrestlemania-like, in-your-face, knock-down, drag-out events. Everyone comes with a strong opinion and no one leaves the joint — at least not with all of their limbs in the proper place — if they disagree.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But you see the point. Back before the internet existed and we were all marginally civil, one could go to a town hall meeting and actually disagree without being disagreeable. Today, fuggetaboutit.

So real town halls began to vanish. Sort of like Washington State football. Here one day and … poof.

• • •

But I’ll continue this political stuff in a second. Back to the actual telephone town hall.

• The call I listened in on lasted about an hour.

• If you wanted to ask a question you were prompted to hit a phone key which puts you in line. Obviously not everyone who wanted to ask a question got to. (I was in line but didn’t get to ask a question.)

• If my count is correct, Herrera Beutler took 10 questions.

• It was not focused on Vancouver callers. Her 3rd Congressional District includes seven Southwest Washington counties and a small piece of Thurston County.

• The questions included why she didn’t vote for Trump, funding for Trump’s border wall, the proposed Interstate 5 bridge replacement, health care and dam removals.

• The questions are screened. Most people should be skeptical about any screening process. So I asked Angeline Riesterer, Herrera Beutler’s communications director, about it. She said they don’t do a lot of screening. They try to avoid duplicate questions. If it’s a specific personal issue, they suggest the caller talk to a casework specialist. And she said that’s about it. Plus, if you didn’t get a chance to ask a question, they suggest you send the question to them and they’ll get back to you.

• According to Riesterer, the average attendance of each call is about 4,400. She said that’s about 10 percent of the invitations sent out.

All in all, the phone call was done well. Some answers might have gone on a bit long but Herrera Beutler sounded comfortable, knowledgable and personable.

• • •

Now back to the political stuff.

For the most part Herrera Beutler joined the no-in-person-town-halls movement several years ago. I say “for the most part” because I’m honestly a bit confused on whether in-person town hall meetings have completely left the landscape for her.

The Columbian reported in October that Herrera Beutler’s last in-person town hall was in early 2017. But in a phone conversation I had with Herrera Beutler this week I asked her if she did any in-person town hall meetings during her last campaign. Here’s how she answered it.

“I believe I did. Yeah, well, define a campaign. Like the whole two years of Congress as a campaign? So, yes, I did.”

Riesterer also said Herrera Beutler tried the traditional town hall route last Congress. “But there was more screaming and attempted crowd control than meaningful dialogue.”

Look, I don’t want to get hung up on semantics and time frames. The real point is, what once was a staple for Herrera Beutler and many other politicians — public town hall meetings — are going away.

Now, I’m pretty sure Herrera Beutler doesn’t see this lack of in-person town halls as a huge factor in the last election. She said the election was close mostly because Democrats poured a ton of outside money into the race. Also, as new residents move into her district, they might not know her as well. So she’s not buying what the Democrats are trying to sell — that she is not in touch with her district.

“I think the criticism is inaccurate,” Herrera Beutler said. “I think every election I had that criticism. And in this election (Long) had a lot of money to put behind it. Yet I still got re-elected. So either people don’t care — which I don’t think it true — or they feel connected by my town halls. And I think the latter is the case.

“I would put it this way, don’t take my word for it. People had the opportunity to voice approval or disapproval, not just in this election but in every election, about the ways in which I communicate. I think the media gets stuck on this point; the average citizen in our district continues to grab me and say ‘Thank you.’ And I think if it wasn’t true and people weren’t connecting to me, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”

My take on it all? First, I like and respect Herrera Beutler. I’ve spoken with her plenty of times over the years and enjoyed sparring with her when I was editor and she attended Columbian editorial board meetings. I consider her to be a moderate Republican. I appreciate that she said she would not vote for Trump for president. When I asked her if she would hold Trump up as a role model for her young daughter Abigail, she said no. She quickly added she wouldn’t hold President Obama up as a role model either.

But she’s missing an opportunity by not doing more in-person town hall meetings. Sure, they’ll get ugly. So what? Democracy isn’t pretty. Never was. Never will be. Have security there just in case. And if she gets shouted down, she’ll end up getting more respect for standing tough.

Herrera Beutler is misreading the tea leaves if she thinks that her victory gives her some sort of validation for not doing in-person town hall meetings. Her view should be her narrow victory should be a wake-up call, and one easy change would be to do more in-person town hall meetings.

Why hand a strong opponent an easy talking point?

So if Herrera Beutler doesn’t step up with more in-person town halls I believe her next election in 2020 will be even closer. Oh, yeah, I did ask if there was going to be a next election for her.

“Yes,” she said.

So let’s get ready to rumble!


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