Email #181: “firmly but politely”?

Your colleague Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer deserves some credit. He went home to North Dakota during the May Congressional break and held a town hall meeting. By his own account the exchanges were sometimes “heated,” but he remained true to his conviction that town halls are a necessary responsibility. One of his angriest constituents lost his temper during the event, but then apologized to Cramer afterwards, even calling him “courageous” and “open.”

Rep. Cramer also criticized members of Congress who do not show the same courage and openness:

“unlike some politicians who rarely hold town halls and hide from their constituents, what I do promise you is that I won’t shy away from you just because the topics are tough. When I hold town halls, you’re not going to get a panel of experts or a moderator with a filtered list of questions from politically friendly constituents, you’re going to get me truthfully answering your questions…. That’s what you deserve from your elected representatives.”

Like you, Cramer is a Republican incumbent who won his seat by a wide margin last November, and his district, like yours, is not considered vulnerable in the 2018 mid-term election. You also both have essentially identical voting records since President Trump took office. Many of the people at his most recent town hall were especially upset that he voted for the American Health Care Act, but he met with them all anyway.

Elise Stefanik, Rod Blum, Raul Labrador, Mark Meadows, Tom MacArthur, and a dozen other Republican Representatives held town halls last month too. You held telephone and Facebook events, formats that Cramer rejects presumably because they can be so “filtered” and “politically friendly” and allow Representatives to “hide” from “tough” questions.

But you do deserve credit for meeting with four members of Indivisible Lynchburg last week. Neal Sumerlin described the meeting in The New & Advance on Sunday: “we agreed on very little, expressed our disagreements firmly but politely on both sides … listened to each other and … no blows were exchanged.” This is the second time that I know of that you recently met with leaders of opposition groups, and I thank you for that. I hope it is the beginning of a continuing trend.

Although I appreciate your new willingness to meet with local activists, as your DC chief of staff said to me, a meeting with only four people is a very limited form of outreach. A town hall would be better. Sumerlin said that you “didn’t unconditionally rule out an open town hall,” but that you “expressed concerns about incivility and seemed solicitous of those of us opposed to [your] actions, fearing that we would be treated badly by constituents who opposed our viewpoints.”

That usefully clarifies statements you made in April to Staunton city council member Andrea Oakes when you asked her to vote against the council’s decision to request a town hall. According to Oakes, you wanted “to hold off until the attitudes are more relaxed” and that you are “just giving it a little time to settle” and for constituents to become less “emotional.”

I think we can agree that things are not settling and are not likely to in the foreseeable future. Sociologist Dana Fisher, director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, has been studying marches in DC for the past five years. She told the Denver Post in May:

“Many Americans no longer feel like their concerns are being heard just by voting… there are people who are getting involved and staying involved and coming out even if it’s every weekend. There’s only so many weekends in a row you want to march, but we have not hit that exhaustion yet… The data we have collected so far suggest they are not going back to watching TV.”

I appreciate your concerns about incivility. When I met with leaders of the Rockbridge Republicans on Saturday, they expressed similar concerns that some of their members might behave inappropriately at an open town hall.

That’s why we proposed a new town hall format, one that is limited to 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, all of whom would agree to engage in civil discourse in advance of receiving their tickets. Sumerlin and the others you have met with followed through on their pledges of confidentiality prior to your meetings, so I hope you will accept that as a building block for further cooperation and trust.

You DC chief of staff emailed me yesterday to say that he would follow up with the chair of the Rockbridge Republicans about the joint proposal. I take that as another promising sign, and I look forward to hearing from your office again soon.

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Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University where he teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury forthcoming 2017).

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