Town Hall Meetings Are Hard – But Politicians Should Do Them

In my 13 years in the Legislature I probably hosted over a hundred town hall meetings all over the 48th district. Sometimes they were cavernously empty. Sometimes they were like what former Rep. Israel describes below – raucous. Sometimes this was organic, like the time my Republican seatmate Rodney Tom and I hosted a joint appearance during the recounts of the hotly contested 2004 gubernatorial election. Sometimes they were more like AstroTurf, with organized groups of constituents (or non-constituents) trying to turn the meeting into a rally for whatever point they were trying to make.

An angry constituent at a town hall meeting held by Steve Israel in 2009. Credit Pablo Corradi/Newsday

New York Times: My Night in Town Hall Hell By STEVE ISRAEL

I loved them either way. You got to hear what people cared about, and they got to see if you were listening. They also got to see if you had done any of the actual work of representing the district. Did you understand the issue? Had you thought about it enough to have an opinion about what ought to happen? Could you talk cogently about both sides of an issue and explain how you got to your position?

Town Hall meetings are a staple of American democracy for just that reason. You represent people. They have a right to tell you what they think, even, or perhaps especially if you don’t agree with them. Sometimes they just want to yell at you. I never felt physically threatened.

My favorite was one I didn’t even attend. I watched Congressman Brian Baird (on TVW) stand on a stage in front of hundreds of angry constituents who were upset about his vote on one of our interminable wars in the middle east or Afghanistan. He had a position, and the people in the crowd didn’t like it. He took questions for hours until the crowd ran out of talk. It was hard. I didn’t agree with him either, but I respected the hell out of him for standing up for what he thought was the right decision.

Doing staged events like the telephone town halls isn’t the same. We did those sometime. They reach more people. We would get thousands listening in. After the first one we did I remember thinking how easy the questions had been and saying something to the staff who were handling the calls. The person running it looked at me like I was out of touch and told me she had screened out the “frequent flyers” with crazy questions. It’s easy to do – there are more questions than there is time and nobody can tell you’re doing it. We tried to be more balanced in the questions we took in later ones, but I’d be astounded if politicians do that in general.

Town hall meetings are important. Talking to, and with your representatives at all levels of government about what you want is the only way you’re going to get anything close to it.

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