People were polite as they entered U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood’s town hall meeting this week, perhaps surprised to find the tall rookie congressman greeting each of them at the door of the Tazewell County event. Many told him they appreciated the chance to listen and be heard.
But it didn’t take long for the crowd of 750 to become boisterous, almost unruly at times, particularly when talk turned, as if often did, to issues surrounding health care and President Trump’s taxes.
And when it was all over, there was a hint of hesitation in LaHood’s voice when I asked whether he’ll do it again. “In all likelihood,” he answered.
Not so for U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, whose 13th Congressional District shares McLean County with LaHood’s. Davis has never had a public town hall meeting in the four years he’s been in Congress and doesn’t plan to start now.
“I have never done large settings where you have opportunities for screaming and yelling at each other,” Davis says. “We have found in my entire career in Washington that one-on-ones, small groups, sitting there talking to individuals about policies, where you can agree, where you can disagree, actually leads to ideas and solutions.”
But here’s his problem: Davis is surrounded by town halls. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin had one in Bloomington a month ago; there was LaHood’s event Wednesday in Washington; U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth will have one here Sunday afternoon.
And Davis is being hounded by some constituents who want an event where they can be sure he hears and appreciates how alarmed they are about matters important to them — not so much as individuals but as a collectively significant part of his constituency. Most of them voted against Donald Trump.
The anti-Trump crowd clearly out-numbered Trump supporters at LaHood’s meeting, even though Trump got nearly 61 percent of the vote in LaHood’s largely rural district.
“I think they felt like they had been left out of the process,” LaHood said after nearly two hours of fielding questions from three dozen people whose names were randomly selected, “that there wasn’t a forum or a venue for them to vent.”
Like Davis, LaHood is a Republican. A difference is LaHood serves a “safe” district, widely out-polling even Trump in his district last fall. So what if video of him giving himself a lot of wiggle room in response to demands from angry constituents shows up in an opponent’s campaign commercial next year? LaHood’s town hall carried little risk and, as it turns out, an upside. Some there to express outrage left with more respect for their congressman.
Democrats, meanwhile, think Davis is vulnerable in next year’s election. He was easily re-elected last year, but his opponent wasn’t one of the Democrats’ stronger candidates. Meanwhile, Trump gathered less than half the vote in Davis’ district.
By saying “no” to any town hall, I think Davis discounts the opportunity to demonstrate he’s not hiding from voters who might harbor sharp differences with him. He’ll argue I’ve been sucked into what he calls “a staged political calculation” by his opponents who want you to believe he’s not accessible.
There’s no question there’s been an erosion in the value of town hall meetings as a place for civil discussion. Even so, they remain a chance for ordinary citizens — not just special interests and lobbyists — to see and hear their elected representatives first-hand in an extended session, to take a full measure of their knowledge and understanding.
After his town hall, LaHood couldn’t immediately identify any issue where the night’s discussion had shifted his thinking. But he clearly had a better grasp of just how strongly at least some of the 710,000 people he represents feel about matters that impact their lives and their children’s future.
What’s wrong with that?