With Town Hall Issue, Herrera-Beutler vs. Long Race Highlights Communication Consternation


GOLDENDALE -- Thirty minutes before Wednesday's scheduled appearance at a Klickitat County grange hall with her opponent, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Carolyn Long swept through the door and made a beeline for the crowd, which had already started to gather. Deep in Republican country, the Democrat proceeded to work the room, shaking hands, asking questions and making sure everyone knew who she was.

A few minutes later, Republican Herrera Beutler entered, and took a spot near the podium, where she stood waiting to greet anyone who approached her. She too took questions, but in a venue where it was standing room only, few risked leaving their seats to say hello.

As much as any other issue in this year's 3rd Congressional District race, the candidates' communications styles are poles apart. And it's become a key issue in the race.

In an era where civility has been increasingly displaced by rancor, how do members of Congress communicate with the public? And in a large, diverse congressional district, what's even possible?

No matter the answers, many in Clark County are left wanting more.

Specifically, they want town halls. But Herrera Beutler is not only criticized for failing to show up in person, but for form letter responses to questions, an office staff unable or unavailable to answer questions and holding telephone meetings where the questions are screened in advance.

Constituents regularly complain their concerns fall on deaf ears. Paul Hamann, an English teacher with the Ridgefield school district, may be one of the most outspoken examples. Hamann says he has called Herrera Beutler each time there's a school shooting and begged for action, only to be left disappointed. He's up to 64 calls.

Those criticisms are answered by Long, a political science professor who has designed a campaign that responds to those who complain about Herrera Beutler. Long has held 44 town halls across the district in an attempt to show voters she's available and willing to listen to their concerns face-to-face.

In what has been a safe district for Herrera Beutler, Long's tactics may have gotten some results. Two recent polls differ on whether Herrera Beutler or Long is ahead, but both polls show both candidates are within the polls' margins of error. In the seven-way August primary election, Herrera Beutler won the most votes of any candidate, 42 percent. But Long won the most votes in Clark County -- which contains roughly two-thirds of the district's registered voters.

Long said she knew town halls and being accessible to constituents would be an issue from day one.

"I had a feeling that people were feeling disenfranchised, that Southwest Washington felt forgotten because of the lack of the presence of the representative of the district," she said.

A lack of forums and debates between the two candidates hasn't helped the divisiveness.

Long and Herrera Beutler only had two in-person forums this election cycle: one in Woodland and one in Goldendale, although the Goldendale forum also featured 17 other candidates for local races. The Columbian's Editorial Board hosted the candidates in August and government access channel CVTV filmed a 30-minute Q&A session between the candidates. But there was no public forum in Clark County, and no debate anywhere. Several debates were proposed, but Herrera Beutler either declined or failed to respond to invitations. The issue is replicated in the 8th Congressional district, where Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Kim Schrier, running for an open seat, held only one public debate for the entire election cycle.

A larger struggle

The issue at hand isn't new. Lawmakers have been struggling with town halls for at least a decade.

In 2009, then-Congressman Brian Baird recalled hosting raucous town halls with police protection and on one occasion with an ambulance parked behind the stage, just in case.

"I just felt it was part of my responsibility was to be available to my constituents, to hear their concerns, to answer their questions, know what issues matter to them and explain any votes I took," said Baird, a Democrat. "That was not always easy, but it was part of my obligation."

Herrera Beutler isn't alone in receiving criticism for lack of public access. Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden is notoriously absent, as is Washington's Dave Reichert, R-Auburn. Before deciding not to seek re-election, Reichert said he was concerned about safety and unruly crowds.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said last year he wouldn't hold town halls, citing the same fears.

On the other hand, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, has held town halls fairly consistently but has been criticized for scheduling the events at odd hours and with short notice.

McMorris Rodgers is also facing a tough race against Democratic challenger Lisa Brown. In the primary, McMorris Rodgers led Brown by little more than 500 votes. For her annual summer town hall, held when Congress is in recess, tickets frequently sell out and attendees are required to bring proof of residency to get into the building.

Kevin Sterling, professor of public policy and political science at University of California, Riverside, has spent the last decade studying town halls, what works, what doesn't, and what role they play in society.

"Town halls play a really essential role in democracy," Sterling said. "It's really the one chance for constituents to be able to be substantially engaged with elected officials in a way that goes beyond just casting a vote and deciding which candidate to make a monetary contribution to. It's a different way of participating."

Democrats criticized too

Republicans aren't alone in receiving criticism. Democrats are often called out.

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, hasn't held an in-person town hall since April 2017. Like Herrera Beutler, Heck also heavily relies on telephone town halls to reach constituents. (Heck ran against Herrera Beutler for the 3rd Congressional seat in 2010, and ultimately lost by 6 percentage points. Heck was elected to serve the newly created 10th Congressional District in 2012.)

As Politico reported last month, keeping town halls -- and as a consequence constituents -- at arm's-length is the latest trend.

In-person town halls are down nearly 70 percent from last year, Politico found. The Town Hall Project, a grassroots effort to connect constituents with representatives, shows only 17 of 405 upcoming town halls nationwide are hosted by Republicans.

"I do think it's harder nowadays, even harder than it was 10 years ago, for any elected official to have town halls," Sterling said. "There is a lot of anger, polarization and extremism in the electorate. It's just harder to have a constructive conversation because of the larger environment we find ourselves in."

But that doesn't mean it's impossible. The rules have just changed, Sterling said. Constituents want to feel like they are being heard regardless of the communication medium, but ultimately, they want the chance to look their representative in the eyes and have an honest conversation, he added.

Since taking office in 2010, Herrera Beutler has used a few different methods to reach constituents and received ongoing criticism for her preference for telephone town halls in lieu of a face-to-face meeting. When asked by The Columbian to sit down and discuss her methodology and the larger issue as a whole, a previously scheduled interview was canceled and Herrera Beutler's spokesperson, Angeline Riesterer, said they didn't see a point in participating in this story.

Herrera Beutler's last in-person town hall was held during a snowstorm in February 2017. However, she held telephone events almost monthly until this May, when she took a summer break before returning Aug. 8 for another call-in option. The telephone call-ins have been on hold since the campaign picked up after the primary election.

Constituents have been just as critical of the telephone events as they have of the lack of public forums.

"The reason I was offended was because it was impossible for her to gauge our reaction to her responses," John Beardsley said in February 2017 after participating in a telephone town hall.

As is common practice, questions from callers are screened in advance. Herrera Beutler's staff screens "to ensure a broad range of topics were covered and that people weren't asking specific personal questions that wouldn't be applicable to others," according to a February 2017 Columbian story on the subject.

Improving town halls

Sterling said there's nothing inherently wrong with telephone town halls, but the typical design is problematic.

"People worry the remote town halls, the kind I study, make it easier I think in some ways for members (of Congress) to control the town hall and that's a real concern," he said. "People in some ways trust technology less than they do in-person. Even though they have the potential for being inclusive, I think it's easier for those kind of town halls to be manipulated for the member."

The fix is relatively easy, Sterling said. Representatives should stop screening the questions and feature a moderator from a third party to make constituents feel they're getting a fair shot. Including a moderator from the League of Women Voters, for example, can make sure a full range of views are expressed and eliminate the perception that the town hall is scripted.

Sterling also recommends offering background material on the issues at hand in advance of the town hall so constituents are more informed on the subject before engaging in conversation. He said his research has found when representatives stop controlling the message and engage in conversation, constituents are happier regardless of the answer they may receive.

Members from both political parties respect their representatives more when they are "willing to expose themselves to being asked difficult questions and giving honest answers to those questions," Sterling said.

Giving an honest answer -- even if the answer is "I don't know" -- is what Long has tried to do throughout her candidacy.

"They'll know if you're being inauthentic," Long said. "And they're also going to know if you're trying to avoid answering a question."

Despite how deeply ingrained the digital landscape is in current society, she said voters still want face-to-face access with their representatives.

"Then they can look you in the eye, you can look them in the eye, and you can really have that opportunity for that personal connection," Long said. "I think that's so needed in politics today, because things have gotten so ugly, so acrimonious, and there's so many personal attacks, that when you see someone face to face, it's a little bit more difficult to do that."

Baird said he believes telephone town halls create a division between the representative and their constituents. In-person town halls are also one of the core freedoms afforded to U.S. citizens, he added.

"If you're saying your right to free speech is to call me if you can get through on a selected telephone line, I don't think that's what the framers had in mind," Baird said.

At its simplest explanation, people want a human interaction, he added.

"That's why we go to rock concerts, why we go to country music concerts ... we can just listen to the radio if we want to listen to the song," Baird said. "Most people don't expect you to agree with them on 100 percent of the items, but they expect you to be willing to listen."