Congressional town hall-style meetings appear to be making a comeback nationally – but not in Maine.

The number of town halls held across the country by members of the Senate or House climbed from 995 in 2017 to 2,111 in 2018, according to a group that tracks the events.

In Maine, however, only one of the state’s four members of Congress, Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, has consistently held town-hall type meetings with voters recently.

In the last seven months, Golden has hosted three town hall events. He also has held regular open-to-anyone coffee hours where more informal conversations are held with smaller groups, said Nick Zeller, his spokesman in Washington.

“When I was sworn in, I told my constituents that I would work hard to make their voices heard in Washington and bring Congress to them,” Golden said. “The town halls I’ve done are one way to do that, but they’re not the only way, as not all folks are comfortable in a town hall setting.”

Golden also has held 14 coffee hours in local coffee shops, cafes or in his district offices in Bangor and Lewiston, attracting as many as 50 people who have wanted to talk to the first-term congressman.

Maine’s three other federal lawmakers – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, have held numerous panel discussions, roundtables, forums, meetings with specific interest groups and visits to schools or businesses where they hear from constituents.

Media offices for the three lawmakers noted that they also regularly meet individually with constituents, either in Washington, D.C., or in Maine when they return on breaks or weekends.

But such events and meetings are not the same as town halls, which are larger gatherings where the general public is invited in advance to attend and speak out or question the senator or representative on any topic of concern.

Pingree’s spokeswoman, Victoria Bonney, pointed to a 2017 panel discussion Pingree held in Portland with several interest groups on Republican efforts to roll back or eliminate provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Bonney also mentioned other interest groups Pingree has met with on the topics of climate change, food safety and food waste. She noted that Pingree will be participating in a public event focused on Maine veterans at the University of Southern Maine on Nov. 4.

“The congresswoman has always been accessible to her constituents, whether that be through prompt responses to their mail or holding events to address the issues they care about,” Bonney said in an email.

King’s spokesman, Matthew Felling, said the senator has held more than 1,300 meetings with Maine people since taking office in 2013. Most recently, King participated in a three-hour panel discussion in Bangor on preventive medicine that was attended by more than 100 people and included two question-and-answer periods.

“These events are called meetings, forums, discussions, listening sessions, or town halls – but no matter what he calls them, the goal is always to directly engage with his constituents,” Felling said in an email.

Collins has probably faced the most criticism for not hosting a town hall-style meeting. She’s been the subject of multiple attacks by activist groups, including the Town Hall Project, which monitors the calendars and meeting schedules of members of Congress.

The left-leaning organization, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, is among a group managed by the for-profit Arabella Advisors and has been criticized as being a “dark money” conduit for liberal causes.

The number of town halls is again on the rise in 2019, said Nathan Miller, executive director of the Town Hall Project. Miller said much of that uptick is because of the current freshman class in Congress, including members like Golden.

“I think all but one of them has held a town hall meeting this year,” Miller said. “We have also seen a bounce-back among some of the longer-standing members who had events in 2017 and for one reason or another didn’t in 2018.”

Many Republicans reduced or stopped doing town halls after facing increasingly angry crowds over attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in early 2017. Although Democrats overall still hold more town halls, some Republicans are sharply increasing the number of times they make themselves available to voters in wide-open settings, the project found.

Miller said Collins is among a small group of Republicans who are up for reelection and have not had a town hall meeting in 2019.

“She has not made it a part of her public service and we think that’s unfortunate,” he said. “We think it’s important to make some time to listen to the people you work for.”

Collins’ spokeswoman, Annie Clark, disputes any suggestion that the senator is averse to meeting with constituents and said Maine’s congressional delegation was the “most accessible” in the nation.

“And of that delegation, nobody is more accessible than Sen. Collins,” Clark said in an email. “She is willing to meet with people who support her, who disagree with her, or who are simply advocating for or against certain government policies.”

Clark noted that Collins has met three times with Marie Follayttar, who heads Mainers for Accountable Leadership. A crowd-funding site the group launched to raise money for Collins’ eventual Democratic opponent has brought in over $4 million to date.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said it’s not surprising that some congressmen may be reluctant to host open, town hall-style forums given the sharp partisan divides facing the country. That polarization is being intensified by the debate around President Trump and the unfolding impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.

Brewer suspects that may be why some politicians are hesitant to hold open, unscripted public forums – even those that may be hosted by a neutral third party or by the lawmakers themselves.

“My guess is that with the exception of Pingree, the rest of our delegation would have to face some tough questions on Trump, and they would end up angering someone regardless of how they answered,” Brewer said.

Town halls also can go poorly or be subject to infiltration by protesters or the supporters of a rival candidate.

In March of 2017, for example, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, found himself engaged in a shouting match with constituents during a town hall event at his state’s capital, Columbia. Graham was defending the president and the audience began to chant, “Your last term.” Graham told the angry crowd to “bring it on.”

The possibility that he might encounter angry voters at a public town hall never seemed to deter former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

In 2015 and 2016, LePage visited more than two dozen communities in Maine on a regular schedule, holding public forums in each of them. His staff moderated the audiences, as best they could, but he regularly took questions from supporters and detractors alike, often generating controversy with his fiery or even racially charged or otherwise offensive answers and statements.

But LePage, who was more than halfway through his second term, had less at stake – he couldn’t run for a third consecutive term because of the state’s constitution, so his positions didn’t need to be crafted to garner the broadest public support.

Brewer, however, believes that made little difference to LePage. “… I doubt the thought of angering someone ever held him back from anything,” Brewer wrote. “That’s not his style.”

Collins, who has yet to declare whether she is running for a fifth term in the U.S. Senate in 2020, faces what many believe would be her most difficult reelection campaign to date. She has been very critical of Trump at times, but also has supported his tax policies and his nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, especially Justice Brett Kavanaugh, deeply angering many of her more moderate constituents.

Collins also needs to placate the president’s supporters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where Trump won by 10 points in 2016.

Golden also is walking that Trump tightrope and has been slow to say whether he would vote to impeach the president, as the House continues its inquiry into his dealings with the Ukraine and other foreign governments and their possible involvement in U.S. elections.

Clark, Collins’ spokeswoman, said that for at least the last 30 years, it has not been the tradition of Maine’s U.S. senators to hold public forums in the format LePage used.

But she said Collins still “regularly participates in events where the public is invited to attend and express their views directly to her.”

 

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.