“Good ideas” come from town halls, Tester says; Daines remains absent

Sen. Jon Tester answers audience questions during a panel discussion held in Missoula on Friday. Tester accepted the Montana World Affairs Council’s invitation to attend. Sen. Steve Daines did not. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In a time when technology allows Montana’s congressional delegation to host tele-town halls or live chats on Facebook, it’s not uncommon for elected officials to get feedback from afar in an effort to stay connected with issues at home.

But many Montana voters still prefer to do things the old-fashioned way – engaging their elected officials in person, respectfully, as they stand before a crowd answering questions.

And at least one U.S. senator from Montana agrees.

“It’s important to meet people eyeball to eyeball and talk about issues that they’re passionate about,” Sen. Jon Tester said Friday during a media interview in Missoula.

“It’s part of the job. When you meet eyeball to eyeball, you get good ideas. You get them much more often in eyeball-to-eyeball settings than over the telephone, though you can get them over the telephone too.”

Over the past few months, Tester has stopped in Missoula three times, including a town hall held with western Montana veterans and a panel discussion held Fridayregarding outside influences in recent U.S. elections.

Sen. Steve Daines was also invited to participate in Friday’s panel, though he declined the invitation.

Many Missoula voters have expressed growing frustration over Daines’ unwillingness to appear in person to discuss current issues, including health care and Russian meddling in the election.

While Daines passed through Missoula in April with Donald Trump Jr. to campaign with Rep. Greg Gianforte, he dismissed a meeting with a large group of Missoula residents who had gathered in hopes of engaging the senator in a town-hall setting.

It wasn’t the first time Daines’ had ignored an invitation to appear locally or backed out at the last minute. It’s uncertain when Daines last stopped in Missoula for a town-hall gathering.

“Truly, our biggest frustration is that we don’t have access to our elected official, period,” said Erin Erickson, a member of Missoula Rises, a non-partisan group focused on human rights.

“We know that that access isn’t on our time, but we’ve been very careful to use all avenues put forth by Daines’ office and still are denied access to him. It shuts down his feasibility to have any constructive conversation.”

Daines, who could not be reached Friday for comment, has held several statewide tele-town halls, including a June event to discuss health care and a March event to hear general concerns.

Daines has said the tele-conferences allow him to reach more Montanans, adding that as many as 25,000 people tune in to his calls.

“It’s a step in the right direction but it’s not good enough,” said Erickson. “They’re able to filter the questions and ask the questions he wants to answer. We’re looking for an authentic, constructive conversation, and tele-town halls don’t do that.”

While Tester said his best feedback comes from meeting voters face-to-face, tele-town halls serve their own purpose. Tester has held his own in recent months, as well as live feeds on Facebook.

“The tele-town hall is good, but I don’t think it’s a standalone,” Tester said. “I think Facebook Live is good, though I don’t think it’s a standalone either. I think the town halls are good, but they’re not a standalone.

“If you can do as many things as possible to reach out, it allows people in Missoula to maybe come to something like this, or it allows someone in Scobey to call in and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ It covers the whole thing.”