Congress’ annual August recess is beginning — the traditional time for members to return home to hold town hall meetings, talk to constituents and campaign.
But Utah voters may struggle to find an old-style, anyone-can-talk town hall meeting where they may weigh in face to face with elected leaders on immigration, trade wars, President Donald Trump or any other issue.
Members of Utah’s congressional delegation have scheduled only two traditional town hall meetings to date, and they are far from the populous Wasatch Front — in Manti and Moab. They opt instead for alternatives that avoid protests, such as tightly controlled “telephone town halls,” “open office hours,” “industry roundtables” or “employer-employee meetings.”
Brigham Young University political science professor David Magleby mourns the increasing rarity of true town halls.
“It’s very unfortunate because I think they are an important opportunity for the public to interact with elected officials,” he said. “The sad reality is we are living in a period of echo chambers where people tend to talk and listen — and even consume news — only from people who agree with them."
The demise of town halls may be a byproduct of incivility in the wake of two landmark political events — the fight over the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” and the election of Trump.
Rowdy crowds • In 2009, the health care debate exploded into hostility at town hall meetings around the country, some devolving into fistfights and helping spur the populist tea party movement. Members of Utah’s delegation at the time, including Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, stopped doing live town hall meetings.
Then, after Trump’s 2016 election, protesters nationally started crowding into such meetings to counter and shout down members who supported him. They grew so rowdy that former Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans last year even urged canceling town halls, saying they had become too dangerous.
Two town halls in Utah last year landed in national news as examples of unruliness:
• At Brighton High School in February 2017, protesters shouted down former Rep. Jason Chaffetz for his refusal to investigate Trump’s potential conflicts of interest. They yelled, “Explain yourself” — but Chaffetz had a tough time being heard over them.
About 1,000 people were inside where police patrolled the perimeter, while 1,500 more were unable to enter the full auditorium and protested outside. Chaffetz later told a radio show, “I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate.”
After initially alleging the crowd was incited by “outside agitators,” he backed off that unsubstantiated assertion.
• In April 2017 with a capacity crowd at West High School, Rep. Chris Stewart also often could not be heard above shouts that included, “Do your job,” “liar” and “who are you in bed with?”
Similar scenes occurred around the nation.
Also in April 2017, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who achieved notoriety for yelling “You lie” at President Barack Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress, was himself confronted at a town hall by constituents chanting, “You lie.”
Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, in March 2017, barred noisemakers at a town hall, insisted that questions be submitted in advance and asked those attending to prove they were constituents by showing utility bills or other documents. He was still shouted down repeatedly by an angry crowd.
“The incivility of some of those town hall meetings … gives those who don’t want to do them a ready excuse,” Magleby said. “So it’s understandable that especially incumbents who are relatively safe — and the campaign consultants who would be advising them — stay away and not subject themselves to that.”
He added, “The likelihood of a mistake — a candidate losing their cool in such a setting — is actually greater, and that’s a nightmare. … And there is a potential, given how heated some of these issues are, of there to be some sort of altercation in the crowd because you are bringing nitro and glycerin together.”
Skipping town halls • Amid the political risks, Utah’s six members of Congress, all Republicans, report scheduling only two traditional town hall meetings among them for the August recess so far, although they say more may be added.
Rep. John Curtis plans one Monday in Moab (5 p.m. in Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.), and Stewart will hold one Tuesday in Manti (7:30 p.m. in Manti High School). Rural town halls have not been as rowdy as those in urban areas. Rep. Rob Bishop says he plans several around his district but has yet to finalize plans.
Five of the members — all but Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is not seeking re-election, and whose office did not respond to inquiries — say they value interaction with voters, but they often opt for methods besides town halls to allow that.
Conn Carroll, spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee, said, for example, “Not all forums are conducive to productive dialogue,” so that is why Lee “works so hard to identify new opportunities to communicate with Utahns.”
He said Lee uses “speeches, question-and-answer sessions, tele-town halls, employee town halls [hosted by a company], constituent meet-and-greets, meetings and roundtable discussions to extend the conversation to as many people as possible.”
Like Lee, most members say they are planning telephone town halls — usually announced on members’ Facebook pages or in emails to supporters. But unlike traditional town halls, they usually mute all but one speaker and easily prevent protests. Members usually ask for questions to be submitted in advance and choose which ones to address.
Rep. Mia Love said she is using many of the same methods as Lee plus one she calls “open office hours.” Her office invites small groups of eight to 12 people at a time to her office and tries to group them according to interest or similar questions. They are limited to about 15 minutes.
Love began holding these limited meetings as a safety measure, amid reported threats on her and her family. She says they “have been extremely successful and our office has found that they are a safe, effective way to provide a forum for meeting that is civil. No one involved in our open office hours has felt unsafe or threatened during one of these meetings.”
Defending town halls • Love skipping traditional town halls has led to criticisms from Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, her opponent in their tight 4th District race.
“Not holding traditional town halls shows that she’s just another spineless Washington politician hiding from the public," said Andrew Roberts, McAdams’ campaign manager. “It’s her job to field tough questions from the people she’s elected to represent.”
McAdams holds town halls — including one this year with 400 people upset about a proposed development near Herriman — and several in 2017 with upset crowds as the county explored where to locate a new homeless shelter, said Roberts.
Some Utah members of Congress continue to defend and use traditional town halls, while also using alternatives. Bishop’s spokesman, Lee Lonsberry, for example, said Bishop has regularly held them and will continue to do so. “He is grateful these meetings have always been constructive.”
Stewart continues to hold some — despite the rowdy one he faced in Salt Lake City last year.
Curtis gives the most ringing support of traditional town halls and says he has held dozens since he won a special election last year to replace Chaffetz. He also hosted them often when he was Provo’s mayor and says those were tougher, and make the current ones seem easy.
“I joke a little bit that you think it’s hard to stand in front of an audience and talk about immigration,” he said. “Try standing up and talking about putting a road in their backyards.”
Curtis said he values town halls because “I’ve also found them to be an important piece of feedback from constituents. If we are not careful, we tend to hear from one source. … I find that people are very frank with me. When it is face to face, it is a little bit more genuine.”
Curtis also said he’s explored having some creative town halls — including earlier this month inviting residents through his Facebook page to climb Mount Timpanogos with him to discuss environmental issues.
“We spent 10 hours together. It was a really fun, different kind of experience,” he said. “We had about a dozen people besides my own staff, between ages 8 and 70.”
He added that his favorite town halls “are those that have a smaller number of people because you really can be more personal and answer all their questions at a much deeper level than if we have a lot of people.”