OP-ED | Jennifer Brooks: A new generation in Congress embraces town halls

By: Jennifer Brooks, Star-Tribune

NORTHFIELD, MINN. – The crowd waiting to see the congresswoman spilled out of the room and into the hall.

It was U.S. Rep. Angie Craig’s fifth town hall in as many months. But novelty hasn’t worn off yet in the Second Congressional District.

“This place, it’s not for the faint of heart,” Craig told the audience gathered in the chapel of a Northfield retirement community Tuesday night.

She was talking about Congress, but she might as well have been describing the act of passing a mic around a room and inviting strangers to give you a piece of their mind.

A town hall is an opportunity. A chance to meet constituents, to learn what they care about, away from the Beltway echo chamber and the caps-lock fury of social media.

There’s a big difference, Craig said, between the topics her constituents care about and the ones that fascinate the Beltway. In five town halls, she’s gotten more questions about the dairy farm crisis than impeachment.

If constituents didn’t get a chance to ask a question in Northfield, they can try again next month, or the month after, or at any of the monthly town halls Craig has planned for her district.

“It’s an honor,” she said, “to listen.”

A town hall is a risk. Members of Congress have been screamed out of rooms and hanged in effigy at town halls over the years. Political rivals send trackers to shoot video, hoping to catch a sound bite for next year’s attack ads.

At Tuesday’s town hall, most people wanted to talk about immigration, guns, nukes, labor policy, the sky-high price of health care and the Enbridge pipeline. A few wanted to talk about the gay agenda.

“I do think about the children,” said a man with a blue shirt and deep concerns about legislation that would protect gay and transgender students from discrimination at school.

“As the first lesbian mother in Congress,” Craig replied dryly, “I want to say ‘thank you for being here today.’ ”

Public schools, she said, have a responsibility to make sure every student feels accepted and has the opportunity to learn.

“You can hold your deeply held religious beliefs in one hand,” she said, while you “hold the rights of the LGBTQ kids and parents in the other hand.”

Around the room, members of the audience raised their hands in the air and fluttered their fingers in silent approval.

The silent cheers were an accommodation for Gretchen Johnson of Burnsville, a young constituent with a sensory processing disorder who came to raise her concerns about American foreign policy and left with a lesson in constituent service.

“I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my sensitivities,” she said. “I should ask for help.”

While Craig was hosting her town hall, Rep. Ilhan Omar was in Minneapolis hosting a forum of her own. The freshman Democrat led a community roundtable on environmental policy, from climate change to the Green New Deal. Since taking office in January, her congressional office says, she’s hosted two town halls and several community roundtables.

In southern Minnesota, freshman Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn plans to host a town hall in each of the First Congressional District’s 21 counties.

“It’s an honor to serve the fine folks of southern Minnesota in Congress,” Hagedorn said in a statement this month. “My priority is to stay connected with constituents by meeting with residents in our Washington office, as well as traveling the district and attending community events, visiting business and farms and shaking hands on our Main Streets.”

Hagedorn will host a town hall at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul’s Lutheran School gymnasium in Truman, Minn. His staff will check IDs and “local county residents will be given priority to ask questions,” according to the statement.

Minnesota has five new members of Congress, and only Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, up in the Eighth, is taking a pass on physical town halls.

Stauber’s office said he took a poll and found that 75% of respondents would rather participate in a so-called telephone town hall than see Stauber travel the 27,000 square miles to meet with them in person. He’s held two phone-ins with constituents so far this year.

“We are aware that not everyone has the means to travel to an in-person town hall, so we will continue to hold frequent telephone town halls,” a spokeswoman said.

Rep. Dean Phillips unseated an incumbent who went years without hosting a physical town hall. The new congressman has held three town halls and several “community conversations” focused on single issues such as the opioid epidemic so far this year. He’s holding the next forum, on military and veterans’ issues, at Edina City Hall at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

“Just the simple notion of convening a community is a powerful one in this day and age, because so many people are segregated by political perspectives and sentiments that are found behind screens,” Phillips said. “Getting people together in the same room has been a profound lesson, I think, to all the participants.”

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