Retreat from town hall: Reporters pursue access as some GOP officials pull back

Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

AFTER DUCKING HIS CONSTITUENTS and protesters this month—by leaving a closed meeting through the back door, in one instance—Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, a Republican who represents the west Chicago suburbs, hosted 18,000 people for a teleconference call last week through his campaign website.

The day after Roskam’s telephone town hall, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner fielded questions about his budget through Facebook Live, a platform the Republican has embraced in order to interact with constituents about statewide issues. The video attracted 16,000 views.

The technology enabled both officials to claim rightfully that they were talking with constituents, and large numbers of them at that. But, in the more controlled virtual space, they also were able to avoid potential confrontation with voters and questions from the press. (Roskam’s staff cancelled a scheduled meeting with constituents earlier this month when a reporter came with them.*)

“The urge to control access is getting worse,” says Thomas Suddes, assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He says social media provides a false sense of access to elected officials. “It used to be that if a person were ducking reporters it was easy to say they were,” he says. Now, social media makes “the appearance of access for the public as significant as genuine access.”

But the appearance of access should not be mistaken for the genuine item—especially at a time when some politicians are retreating from contentious in-person encounters.

In a searing editorial, the Elgin Courier-News, a suburban newspaper owned by the Chicago Tribune, blasted Roskam for voicing his support for President Donald Trump’s legally questionable travel ban “under the friendly cover of conservative talk radio.” The paper noted that Roskam declined to talk directly to his constituents or answer questions from the media, and did not acknowledge multiple requests for an interview with the suburban Naperville Sun.

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David Pasch, spokesman for Roskam, says the lawmaker has “one of the busiest district schedules of any member of Congress.” Last year, Roskam’s schedule included 74 meetings at his district office, 30 roundtable discussions, 113 speaking engagements and 111 “tele-town halls” like the one he had last week, Pasch says.

In defending his decision not to hold large public meetings with constituents, Roskam (once again on the radio) told WGN’s Rick Pearson in an interview that town hall meetings “tend to be platforms for people to shout at one another and get angry at one another and leave more upset and disappointed and bent out of shape than when people came.” And for proof, Roskam added, “just look at the national news.”

 

REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS IN PARTICULAR are facing tough questions from their constituents back home—about what will replace the Affordable Care Act if it is eliminated, about their support of some of President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, about changes in environmental policies and a host of other issues. In some districts, the exchanges have become quite heated, and protesters have showed up to voice their disapproval. At a press conference last week, Trump dismissed the town hall protests, saying the protesters “are not the Republican people that our representatives represent.” He offered no evidence that the concerned citizens are not Republicans.

A staff member at the Little Rock office of Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton cited “recent threats” as a reason why the office staff won’t meet with voters.  A constituent told the Arkansas Times, a weekly alternative newspaper, that the staff has turned off office phones and locked doors. After Cotton promised an organizing group that he would meet with them, the newspaper said it still had questions about who would be let into the town hall event. However, the paper noted, “Cotton’s team does not respond to questions from the Arkansas Times.”

The chair of Utah’s Republican Party offered a similar argument last week in order to dissuade legislators from attending town halls. A statement posted to the party’s Twitter account carried the headline: “Utah Republican Party asks Congressional Leaders to Delay Town Hall Meetings Due to Acts of Intimidation and Violence.” The statement referenced a recent event held by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, though Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune that “it was not a violent meeting,” and said he has “a duty and a need to hear from everybody in my district.”

In Virginia, Rep. Barbara Comstock, who narrowly won her district in November, invited constituents to two events. Her staff promised that she’d be there. But she wasn’t, Politico reported. Her staff said there were errors in the invitations.

In California, Rep. Tom McClintock held a town hall meeting that attracted hundreds of people, many of whom were unable to go into the event space. Protesters told ABC there was more room inside, but McClintock said the fire marshall claimed it was at capacity. McClintock told ABC that his team planned to cycle members of the crowd into the space, then cancelled that plan and left the event under police escort, citing concerns for his safety. The police chief told The Sacramento Bee that the congressmen was never in danger, and the story pushed back against the McClintock team’s characterization of the event.

And in Indiana, The Herald Bulletin in Andersonville, north of Indianapolis, reported that hundreds of constituents were upset when Rep. Susan Brooks met individually with people at a “meet the congresswoman” event instead of holding a more traditional town hall meeting.

Not all meetings with constituents have ended with politicians leaving out the back door. At a town hall meeting with two Republican state lawmakers on Monday in Tomah, Wisconsin, the 16 people in attendance were polite, if not restrained, says Steve Rundio, editor of The Tomah Journal. He covered the story for the Lee Enterprises newspaper, which has a print circulation of about 3,500.

“I just get the impression around here that people are really burned out on politics,” he says. “They really don’t want to talk about it.”

He did notice something peculiar, Rundio tells me. The lawmakers seemed to go out of their way to not use President Donald Trump’s name, as well as party labels like “Republican” and “Democrat.”

“I could tell the lawmakers wanted to keep the temperature down,” he says.

 

ABDUL HAKIM-SHABAZZ, a radio talk show host and editor and publisher of a popular Indiana political blog, says he can understand why politicians may prefer a more controlled environment.

These days, local politics “is a lot more overall cantankerous,” he says. “Part of it is because of social media. People will say things online that they would never say to your face, and that is where social media hasn’t helped the discourse.”

Still, Hakim-Shabazz doesn’t condone the use of controlled events to avoid voters or the press. While he follows what elected officials post on social media, Hakim-Shabazz doesn’t let them have the last word there; he insists on asking follow-up questions.

“I will take whatever the thing they are trying to spin on social media and have them elaborate,” he says.

Suddes, the Ohio University professor, says lawmakers in uncontested districts don’t have a reason to put themselves in front of constituents and reporters, especially if they perceive that there might be a confrontation.

“If you are an office holder in a circumstance where you have a safe seat, the only thing you run risks of doing is crossing a major interest group,” he says.

Still, the heightened discourse in the country, however unflattering and uncomfortable for politicians, is no excuse for lawmakers to avoid their constituents or to bypass the press. Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan told The Washington Post over the weekend that he was taking the heated exchanges in stride. Furthermore, he rejected the notion that he shouldn’t listen to protesters who might not be his constituents. “If there are people here who aren’t constituents, they’re still Americans. I’m happy to talk to them,” he told the Post. That’s how it should be.

Correction: This story originally stated that Roskam, rather than his staff, cancelled the meeting. CJR regrets the error.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.