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What will it take to get delegation to town hall meetings?

Wyoming’s all-Republican congressional delegation spurned last week’s invitation to attend a town hall meeting in Cheyenne, so organizers fittingly placed a large portrait of each lawmaker on the chairs they reserved for the real politicians on stage.

That made me wonder: is this state so red that it would vote to send the portraits back to Washington, D.C., to represent us? Quite possibly, I thought, as long as the pictures placed on the ballot each had that all-important “R” behind them.

Like other progressives in Wyoming, I don’t have anyone in Congress to represent me. I could live with portraits of Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Liz Cheney being elected because in many ways it would actually be better for people of my political persuasion than the real thing.

Think about it: We progressives would no longer have to waste our time calling our representatives and telling them what we think about an issue that’s important to us. Portraits can’t cast votes in Congress, so our calls would have the same impact they have now, which is none at all.

There would be no more insulting form letters clogging our mailboxes, telling us how much our thoughts are appreciated but they will just ignore everything we say and vote the way Republican leaders told them to do. I doubt any Wyoming Democrat’s or independent’s letter or call has ever changed our current lawmakers’ minds, so we’d be no worse off than we are today.

Finally, it would be much easier to get the portraits to come to a town hall meeting than the real politicians. Portraits can just be stored, carried around and plopped onto their respective chairs. We won’t have to hear any lame excuses that they just couldn’t fit our inconsequential meeting into their schedules because they were too busy glad-handing some city’s chamber of commerce members.

Two groups — one composed of like-minded individuals in Jackson and the newly formed, nonpartisan Wyoming Progressives in Cheyenne — lobbied for the delegation to host its own town hall meetings. When that didn’t get any response, they tried for several months to work with the staffs to invite Enzi, Barrasso and Cheney to town hall events the groups would organize themselves. It was always the same answer: our bosses love to meet with their constituents but they’re already booked all over the state for every minute they will be in Wyoming.

Politicians used to feel the pulse

I remember when our senators and representatives weren’t afraid to enter an auditorium and answer questions without having their staffs screen them so they knew they would be positive ones. Alan Simpson, Craig Thomas and Teno Roncalio didn’t want to lose a chance to feel the pulse of a large number of their constituents at once. They knew it was part of their jobs.

Today a lot of politicians, including our congressional delegation, like to hold “tele-town halls,” which are nothing compared to an actual in-person event. Constituents are invited to call in so they can ask one of their representatives a question. They tell the staff member who answers the topic they want to address, but if it isn’t a “friendly” question that will generate some talking point that’s on the day’s agenda, the caller will wait in vain for two hours without being chosen. Having this experience once is usually enough to convince people it’s all a sham.

Yet this is what is passed off as an example of democracy in action. We’re supposed to be impressed because our officials took time off from raising money for their re-election to speak on the phone to people they serve and spread some propaganda. Please, give us all a break — if they aren’t willing to answer a question about a vote they cast or their stance on a controversial issue, these politicians aren’t worthy of their offices.

It’s not just Wyoming congressional members who are at fault. For the past two months mostly left-leaning groups and individuals have been bugging officeholders all over the country to hold their own town halls. They are a mirror image of the Tea Party people who berated congressional Democrats who supported “Obamacare” eight years ago.

Now, most of the people who attend these events shout at Republicans who want to repeal Obamacare. That would include Barrasso, Enzi and Cheney. I realize it’s no fun to be screamed at, but our trio signed up for this. Besides, it doesn’t have to be all confrontational. In some of the videos of recent town halls I’ve watched, they can be worthwhile if the politician is skilled enough to develop a dialogue with the audience and actually listen to what people have to say.

In August 2013, Enzi and Cheney both took the time to meet friendly crowds at a Tea Party picnic held in Big Horn County. Enzi was running for re-election and Cheney was his GOP primary opponent. According to the Powell Tribune’s account of the picnic, Enzi and Cheney spent most of their time with the 350 people who attended bashing both the president and Obamacare.

“He does not listen to the American people,” Enzi said of Barack Obama. “He just campaigns.”

“Obamacare is a disaster for all of us,” Cheney declared. “It is a disaster for the nation. … Obama came into office intending to weaken the nation. Sadly, that’s what he’s been able to do.”

If the pair can talk to the Tea Party a year before an election, why can’t they attend a town hall now? Their opinions about Obamacare haven’t changed, but many voters have reversed course and now don’t want to see the Affordable Care Act repealed and replaced — especially with the hodgepodge plan the GOP concocted after doing nothing on the issue for seven years.

There is another opportunity for the GOP officeholders to attend a town hall meeting in Cheyenne. The second one sponsored by Wyoming Progressives will be held at Laramie County Community College’s CCI Building, Room 130, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19. Organizer Matthew Link said between 60 and 100 people attended last week’s meeting at the Laramie County Library. He hopes more publicity and word-of-mouth about the first one will attract a bigger crowd for the second.

Link said he was inspired to try to make town hall meetings a tradition again in Wyoming after he heard Ralph Nader talk about how progressive groups are using the events to force politicians throughout the country to listen directly to people’s concerns.

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Link said the group is nonpartisan but supports candidates of any party who have progressive views. He had campaigned for Bernie Sanders before Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination. He then joined the Green Party and helped gather signatures on petitions to get presidential candidate Jill Stein on the ballot in Wyoming.

Link lamented that only one in 12 people between 18 and 21 years old voted in Laramie County’s general election last November. But he believes that if more people can get interested in town meetings — and politicians can be convinced to show up — it can inspire more young people to vote.

The organizer said he’s applied to graduate schools in marine biology on both coasts. Link’s time left in Wyoming may be short, but he wants to spend it organizing other town halls in the state on the same date, so it will be harder for the delegation to say they can’t get to one.

If Wyoming’s congressional delegation keeps ducking town hall meetings, perhaps a tactic that’s worked in some other states should be used: Keep sending people regularly to protest outside their congressional offices, and get the media to cover it. If they don’t care about fulfilling an important part of their responsibilities to listen to all constituents, and not just friendly ones, pestering and shaming them might do the trick. At this point, whatever it takes.

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2 Responses to What will it take to get delegation to town hall meetings?

  1. Jay Morton April 18, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    Good points! Rep Liz zipped into Pinedale today, wouldn’t talk with anyone except elected officials, stopped by the right wing radio station for an “interview”, then left town. No advance notice, no opportunity for dialogue with constituents, just a publicity stunt to show her down home connections to the locals. Some will fall for it, some won’t.

    And you are right, when you sign up to run for public office, you sign up to speak with all the public, interact with all the public, meet face to face with all the public…. Picking and choosing to chat only with supporters and financial backers is not representative government, it’s playing favorites and degrading the role of elected official. If you can’t stand the heat, hand your cooking spoon to someone else and get out of the kitchen.

    Cora, Wyoming

  2. Lee Ann Stephenson April 18, 2017 at 6:15 am #

    Thanks for sharing your frustration as I am frustrated, too. Sen. Enzi met with senior services directors in Rawlins last week. I am a Carbon County senior services board member and we were invited also. We were told it was not open to the public and he would only talk about funding for senior centers. I could not attend, but I can’t imagine there were more than 20 people at the Rawlins senior center. I must say funding for senior centers is important, but I was pretty angry the audience and topic was so narrow. Even us ‘Wyoming ‘ democrats used to be able to have conversations with our representatives and were given respect as part of the residents to also be represented. No more. I am beyond frustrated.

    Riverside , Wyoming

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