Congressional town-hall meetings once were an August tradition. In Arizona, they're scarce

Ronald J. Hansen
The Republic | azcentral.com
Two-term Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., is by far the leader in holding town halls among the state's congressional delegation.

It's August and Capitol Hill is largely still, even as many Americans clamor for gun-control legislation after a series of deadly mass shootings.

But with Congress in its customary month-long summer recess, most Arizonans won't have the opportunity to press their elected officials in a public setting about what's on their mind on any topic.

Neither of Arizona's U.S. senators — Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally — and none of the state's four Republican House members have held a town-hall-style meeting this year, according to the Town Hall Project, a left-leaning organization that tracks and advocates such events for all members of Congress.

The Arizona lawmakers who haven't held any town halls this year don't have any scheduled for the recess and could not tell The Arizona Republic when they plan to hold any beyond that.

After a few years in decline, the town hall, a classic American political tradition open to the public and the media where politicians field unscripted questions and comments, may be making a minor comeback across the country. The Town Hall Project notes there were 67% more town halls across the country in the first four months this year compared to the same period last year.

But in Arizona, for some members of Congress, town-hall meetings are as passé as payphones and Myspace.

In its place, they offer tele-town halls, workplace visits and in-office meetings in which they rarely have the face-to-face encounters with frustrated and angry constituents that sometimes produce viral videos and campaign fodder for their political opponents. 

Nathan Williams, executive director of the Town Hall Project, said the increase in town halls elsewhere seems due in part to participation from freshmen Democrats and vulnerable Republicans. Even so, many of those who haven't done them in the past, still aren't.

"There's something fundamental to our democracy to being in the same room and being able to look them in the eye," Williams said. "It's not a partisan concept."

Two-term Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., is by far the leader in holding town halls among the state's congressional delegation.

Using the Town Hall Project's criteria, O'Halleran has held 16 across his sprawling 1st Congressional District, which spans northeastern Arizona, from the Utah border to the outskirts of Tucson. By his office's count, he has held 23 town halls — with two more scheduled during the recess. 

"That's what you're expected to do," he said. "You get more personal contact with the citizens you represent. You get a better overview of what the different communities (want) because of the amount of communities I have. ... It's critical. You can talk to all the pundits and everything else. You want to go out there and represent people, talk to people."

Others take a different approach.

Five-term Republican Reps. Paul Gosar and David Schweikert have consistently avoided town halls. Neither man held a town hall in 2017 or 2018, according to Williams' group, and neither responded to The Arizona Republic's request for any upcoming town halls. Both regularly hold tele-town halls, giving more constituents than can attend a town hall a chance to dial in, listen and — perhaps — ask a question.

McSally hasn’t held any town halls since ascending this year from the House to the upper chamber. She said she holds plenty of other face-to-face meetings that allow people to express themselves civilly to her.

"We’re out and about in Arizona all the time," she said. "We’re visiting people where they are. We’re engaging them in their workplace, at schools, at senior communities; you name it. We are engaging with constituents in our office, everywhere. So I’m tirelessly listening to my constituents, having productive conversations with them."

A spokeswoman for Sinema, who like McSally has held no town halls since joining the Senate in early January, was not available for comment about the town-hall issue on Monday.

Michael Neblo, a political-science professor at Ohio State University, said he thinks town halls have their place, but elected officials have shied away after seeing how the events can go awry.

"Part of being an elected official is standing in there and taking heat sometimes," he said. But in the current polarized environment, town halls have attracted only the most motivated opponents of whoever is holding the event, Neblo said.

Beginning with the "Tea Party" movement in the Obama years and continuing with the Indivisible movement in the Trump era, both sides have rhetorically pummeled members of Congress in public, he said.

"These are human beings and they're being treated like piñatas," Neblo said.

Rowdy town halls ended in 2017

McSally hasn't hosted a traditional town hall event since February 2017, when liberal activists challenged her on several fronts at a church in Sahuarita. It happened in the early days of the Trump administration and as Democratic activists had effectively hijacked town halls by Republicans across the country.

McSally, a former combat pilot, brushed aside criticism at the time that she was afraid of such encounters. Even so, she hasn't had any other town halls since.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., held a town hall in Mesa in April 2017 in which he, too, faced questions from the left on issues such as health care and climate change. The crowd of 600 booed him repeatedly and held up signs of disapproval.

Two days after Biggs' town hall, then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., held his last one, a raucous affair, also in Mesa.

It was a night to forget for Flake and presaged both his lack of support among Arizona Republicans and of Democratic activism that helped elect Sinema, D-Ariz., to replace him.

Flake gently acknowledged the dissenters who swarmed his town hall.

"This is what democracy looks like," he said after two and a half hours parrying the crowd. "This has been a great evening."

One of the attendees responded with characteristic invective. 

"(Expletive) you," he said.

McCain mastered the event

Not that long ago, the town hall was the unavoidable crucible through which members of Congress and presidential candidates had to pass.

The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., built his national political brand in part on his storied exchanges with "friends" and foes alike at town halls, especially in Arizona and the key presidential primary states Iowa and New Hampshire.

Even then, the political perils of town halls were evident. More than once, McCain had hecklers removed from his events.

One of McCain's most memorable town hall moments happened in 2008, when he corrected a supporter who falsely asserted that future President Barack Obama was Arab. It likely had little elective value for McCain at the time, but it remains a durable example of political rectitude in today's more-tribal climate.

A new kind of town hall 

Neblo, a co-author of the book "Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy," recommends adding something he has researched called the deliberative town hall.

It features a randomized sample of a member's voting-eligible constituents. Participants in the online eventsoffer a cross-section of political views and are permitted to ask questions on a specific topic, such as immigration. Because the discussion is limited to a single subject, it tends to move politicians off their usual talking points, Neblo said. 

Neblo is planning a second round of test cases using actual members of Congress. His initial research found that participants in deliberative town halls wanted to do so again and were more likely to vote and more likely to vote for the official they questioned.

Authenticity seemed to be the key: Participants appreciated questions that weren't "softballs" to the member of Congress and they also liked when the member admitted not having an immediate answer, Neblo said.

For his part, O'Halleran offers his own advice on handling constituent meetings.

"The one thing you can't do is say one thing in Casa Grande," he said, "and then say something else in St. Johns." 

Republic reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed.

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.