There likely will be tense issues that suck the oxygen out of political discourse during Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez’s time in Congress, but a town hall last week in Stevenson was a breath of fresh air.
Less than two weeks after she was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives — a ceremony delayed by the kind of breathless disagreements that hamper Congress these days — the Democrat met with constituents at the Skamania County Fairgrounds.
“I’m relieved, I’m excited, I’m really proud of my community,” Perez told The Columbian following the public forum. “This was such a substantive conversation. When you’re at home reading Facebook or social media, the narrative is not, ‘look at these people with varying political beliefs and issues that are important to them coming together.’ It was just really refreshing to see that we can break the mold, we can have these conversations, we can be accountable to each other.”
To a large extent, town halls have fallen victim to our chaotic political times. Vitriol and stridency often overwhelm reasonable discourse, leading many elected officials to opt for public meetings over the phone or online.
That trend has been seen in the 3rd Congressional District, which Perez now represents.
As far back as 2009, Democratic Rep. Brian Baird complained about the venomous nature of in-person town halls as Congress debated what eventually became the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Baird characterized people disrupting the town halls of other officials as demonstrating a “lynch mob mentality” and using “close to Brownshirt tactics,” a reference to Nazi storm troopers.
He apologized for the remark, but Baird himself faced disruptive anger from constituents during a series of meetings.
Baird’s successor, Jaime Herrera Beutler, opted for phone town halls during most of her 12 years in Congress. While Herrera Beutler faced frequent criticism for that choice, it was not an outlandish decision. As NPR explained in 2013 about town halls across the country: “Demonstrations at some of these gatherings led to fistfights, arrests and even hospitalizations.”
Political enmity has not been quelled since then; if anything, it has increased — not only among members of the public, but among members of Congress. The swearing-in of Perez and other officials was delayed as House Republicans engaged in four days of infighting before choosing a speaker. The often-contentious display was symbolic of the theatrics of modern politics.
As a freshman congresswoman from the minority party in the House, Perez is powerless to change that. But we hope that decorum and reasonable discussion can be the norm in the 3rd Congressional District.
“When I see bills that make sense for our community, I’m going to get behind it and ensure that we are actually doing the work of legislating,” Perez said in Stevenson. “I’m responsible to you all. I’m here doing in-person town halls because I think that’s what good governance looks like when you are accountable.”
The public also must be held accountable. Disruptive demonstrations during in-person meetings with elected officials poorly serve our communities and our democracy. Outspoken righteousness undermines the political process.
But, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” Meeting face-to-face with the people is an important way for elected officials to help ensure a well-informed populace.