Standing before 130 constituents at last week’s town-hall event in Missoula, Sen. Jon Tester defended his legislation, answered questions on far-reaching issues, and spoke candidly about the ways of Washington, D.C.
In doing so, he placed himself before an open audience in an open forum to discuss a range of unscripted issues.
With nothing off the table, there’s no telling how such events might go, or what issues might arise. It can be risky business for elected officials given the day’s political divisiveness, and some members of Congress have been booed off stage at similar events in other states.
But the open forum is something Tester says he enjoys.
“For me, it’s a lot more fun – it’s more mental gymnastics,” Tester said after last week’s event. “Every once in a while, you’ll have somebody ask you something you don’t have an answer for because you don’t know the issue, which is normal. You just admit it and move on.”
While some members of Congress prefer “eyeball-to-eyeball” town halls, others take a different approach when hearing from constituents, including tele-town halls and smaller meetings in more intimate and controlled settings.
Sen. Steve Daines has stopped in Missoula on a number of occasions to hold roundtable talks with select groups, including law enforcement and members of the U.S. Forest Service. He’s held similar events across the state, including a recent roundtable with veterans in Hamilton.
Daines’ office said the senator has noticed or advertised his “56 County Tour” across a range of media, including weekly newspapers. He held a traditional town hall in Glasgow and Helena, the later attended by roughly 50 senior citizens, and has been available to the media when in Missoula.
“During his ’56 County Tour’ of the state each Congress, Senator Daines meets with folks in every corner of Montana to hear their thoughts and concerns, and gather feedback on all issues,” said Julia Doyle, Daines’ press secretary.
Despite claims by some left-leaning constituents, Doyle said Daines is accessible to Montanans and connects in a variety of ways. She said he Skypes with students, teachers and schools, remains active on social media, and has hosted 22 tele-town hall events.
Doyle said Daines has sent invites to roughly 300,000 Montanans asking them to join his telephone sessions.
“Steve holds tele-town halls as a way to connect with tens of thousands of Montanans at once,” said Doyle. “By using technology, all Montanans, including seniors or those unable to travel, are able to participate and hear from the senator.”
Over the past two years, Rep. Greg Ganforte’s stops in Missoula have included at least one closed meeting with the city’s tech leaders and another with the Montana Coalition of Forested Counties. He also offered opening remarks on the economy at the release of this year’s housing report, though he declined to take questions on the issue from the media while in Missoula.
Gianforte’s office said the popular narrative that he doesn’t do public town halls is “naive,” as described by the publisher of the Glasgow Courier in a June tweet. In that string of tweets, the reporter suggested that all three members of Congress “meets where he is liked and the other two do the same thing.”
Gianforte, who is running for governor, has held no town halls in Missoula, the state’s second largest city, and all three of his congressional offices are located east of the Continental Divide.
“Connecting with Montanans, whether through town halls or sitting down with them as he crosses the state, is the only way Greg knows to do the job,” said a Gianforte spokesman.
“After completing a tour of all 56 Montana counties within about his first two months in office, Greg has conducted near monthly town hall events that reach about 100,000 Montanans from all parts of the state and has held office hours in every county at least once. This year alone, Greg has held public events in 27 counties and five town hall events in five months.”
According to a congressional accessibility report by the Town Hall Project, traditional town-hall events with an open forum saw a steep decline in 2018. That was driven in part by the reluctance of Republicans to hold contentious public meetings during their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act passed the year before.
But the same report cites an increase in town-hall events this year, with more members of both parties now placing themselves before live audiences – especially those members who are up for reelection.
Still, 98 members of Congress have not held a single town hall this year, according to the report.
“While far too many members of Congress remain ‘missing’ and inaccessible to the people they work for, we applaud a growing group of members for this positive 2019 trend and encourage Americans across the political spectrum to continue to demand more of the people we have elected to represent us,” the organization wrote in its report.
Some have suggested that the labeling of a “town hall” itself has become political and can be defined in any number of ways. But constituents looking to access their elected officials in an open forum could care less about the politics, or how one defines the event.
According to Tester’s staff, the state’s senior senator has held nine “public, open, in-person” town halls since President Donald Trump was elected to office.
“Eyeball to eyeball always works better,” Tester said. “The tele-town halls are great, but I think the in-person ones are more valuable. Tele-town halls you have the ability to control the questions. In-person town halls you never know what you’re going to get. It’s like a box of chocolates.”