U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst responds to questions from audience members during a town hall meeting last month at the Washington High School Performing Arts Center in Washington, Iowa.

JIM SLOSIAREK, THE GAZETTE

CEDAR RAPIDS — Town hall meetings hosted by elected officials are a storied part of American politics.

The idea that members of Congress should “return home and mix with the people” can be traced back to a Connecticut delegate to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Roger Sherman was concerned that without that contact, elected officials might “acquire the habits” of the Capitol — or, as we say today, “go Washington.”

However, the decorum at many public forums this year has more closely resembled the cheap seats at a European soccer match than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

“They certainly weren’t two-way conversations because whenever I would start to give an answer, usually there would be yelling at me or jeering at me or booing,” Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, told KXEL Radio in recounting his experience with four town halls meetings in May that attracted upward of 3,500 people. In Cedar Rapids, Blum was booed when he introduced his wife.

“Clearly, the majority, not all, but a majority of people were not interested in a two-way conversation of me explaining my position on things,” said Blum, who represents the 1st Congressional District.

‘Tapping into the anger’

Amy Adams, a Cedar Rapids educator, agrees town hall meetings “aren’t conducive to dialogue.” However, it may be the only option. She and other members of Indivisible Iowa, which describes itself as a nonpartisan group “committed to resisting the Republican congressional and executive agenda,” haven’t had any luck setting up a meeting with Blum to have that two-way conversation.

Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which chooses “targeted opportunities to make a big splash,” rejects the idea that progressive organizations are directly responsible for the opposition Blum and other GOP lawmakers have encountered.

Progressive organizations can encourage people to attend, “but we can’t direct them (or) control what they say,” he said, adding that from his perspective, “the resistance is cropping up organically.”

What’s different this year, Mason said, is that his and other groups are “tapping into the anger that is out there." Compared to 2009, when it was the tea party raising heck at town hall meetings, “the tides have turned, (and) the ire is on the other foot.”

Regardless, the experience of Blum and other Republican members of Congress earlier in the year caused some of them to curtail their public forums during the August congressional work session. Blum has had several meetings with constituents, but he hasn’t advised any public meetings. Fourth District Republican Rep. Steve King, never one to hold a lot of town hall meetings, opted for visiting county fairs over hosting his own public events. He cited safety reasons.

“With Steve Scalise lying in a hospital bed with a bullet through his hip,” it doesn’t make sense to advertise town hall meetings, King said, referring to the Louisiana House member who was shot June 14 at a softball field near Washington, D.C.

“That shooter was radicalized by the political rhetoric that has permeated our dialogue in this country,” King told the Sioux City Journal.

No 'torches and pitchforks’

If members of Congress are concerned for their safety, Adams said, her group would be willing to meet at a federal courthouse guarded by marshals and security gates.

“We don’t have torches and pitchforks,” she said.

On the other hand, GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, the grandfather of the annual 99-county tour, said everyone comes to town hall meetings with an agenda — “maybe to stir things up.”

“It’s not a major problem,” he said. “I haven’t felt uncomfortable.”

Grassley, who held question-and-answer sessions in 30 counties, attended the Iowa State Fair, his local Farm Bureau meeting and community and athletic events during the congressional recess, said the Scalise shooting wouldn’t make him change his public schedule.

“Most Iowans, even if they intensely disagree with you, are not violent people,” said Grassley, who has done a “full Grassley” every year since 1981. “I’ve come through here completely unscarred.”

He also noted that this isn’t the first time voters have come to his meetings with strong opinions. In 2009, it was health care. Last year, it was opposition to his decision as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee not to hold hearings on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

Face-to-face

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst had 32 county meetings in August because “people need to know where I stand on issues.” Ernst’s town hall meeting in Washington, Iowa, attracted 200 people and was more subdued than her March forum in Cedar Rapids where she was badgered by a crowd of more 1,000 people. Regardless of attendees’ behavior, Ernst thinks the meetings are valuable for her.

“I need to know where they stand on issues,” she said. “I think when we have face-to-face conversations it is much more helpful than shooting barbs at each other on Facebook or Twitter. This is a much more effective way of communicating.”

Second District Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa City has participated in nearly 200 events this year, including dozens of Coffee with Your Congressman stops “that give his constituents a chance to discuss whatever issue they would like with him face-to-face,” his spokesman Joe Hand said.

“Dave values hearing from the people of Iowa and will continue to listen to their thoughts and concerns so he can best serve those he was elected to represent,” he said.

There’s another side to the town hall meetings that often goes overlooked, Iowa CCI’s Mason said.

“They’re an opportunity for (elected officials) to turn out their base to counterbalance our presence,” he said. “That’s what Trump is doing” with his campaign-style rallies.

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