By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Before returning to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., to decide the fate of the nation’s health care law and a spending bill to avoid shutting down government, many U.S. senators and representatives spent their recent two-week recess back in their home states, cutting ribbons, shaking hands, kissing babies, appearing in selfies with constituents – putting in an appearance here and there.
And, largely, staying away from town hall meetings.
The national media landscape is littered with video of raucous town hall meetings where elected officials were met with fierce and vocal opposition.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, has hosted several town halls in conjunction with other groups to address health care issues. But of West Virginia’s five-member delegation invited to attend, only Sen. Joe Manchin has showed up.
Smith expressed disappointment that the others – Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Representatives Evan Jenkins, Alex Mooney and David McKinley, all Republicans – have not attended any of the public gatherings because he said holding town halls is part of the job description.
“I think it’s a dereliction of duty,” he said. “When you’re called to serve in this way, it’s like being called to serve in the military or Peace Corps — you’re representing the country and your constituents. When you dodge meeting them, it’s like not showing up to work. I think it’s terrible. My hope is that each of these candidates who haven’t done a town hall in 2017 will still do one.”
Manchin has hosted a few town halls of his own during the recent congressional break, in addition to attending all but one of the town hall events hosted by the Healthy Kids Coalition.
A former governor and native of Farmington, Manchin hosted town halls in Parkersburg April 12 and Hinton April 13. At the stop in Hinton, he addressed the Affordable Care Act, opioid addiction, Syria, and federal environmental regulations, among other issues.
Facing an estimated 200 constituents from Summers, Greenbrier, Raleigh and surrounding counties, Manchin spent 90 minutes visiting with constituents at the Freight Depot, answering their questions and placing some with caseworkers to address their needs.
“This is exactly what America is about,” Manchin said during the session to the crowd, where signs waved in support of Planned Parenthood and placards with handwritten “Agree” and “Disagree” statements flashed. “It’s democracy in its finest form.”
Jenkins and Capito have held several events during the two-week recess. Jenkins hosted a town hall at the Lincoln Primary Care Center, a senior center in rural Hamlin last week. He took questions from residents about health care, miners’ pensions and infrastructure.
He was not able to make it to one of the Healthy Kids and Family Coalition town halls because Congress was in session.
Capito met with Smith last week to discuss a wide range of health care issues including the Children’s Health Insurance Program. She also has hosted events throughout the last few weeks, visiting residents throughout the state.
Jenkins hosted events throughout the state, too, and attended a celebration at the Raleigh County Commission on Aging honoring its national accreditation.
When asked about town halls versus constituent visits at the stop in Beckley, Jenkins said his office has conducted hundreds of meetings with constituents, including roundtable discussions on a range of topics. He also points to his mobile office hours hosted by his representatives as an effective outreach effort.
But pre-planned events where the agenda is under tight control and the candidate’s participation in a well-publicized town hall are quite different environments.
Jenkins has made clear his preference.
“The real issue is while there is a lot of attention about town halls … where people have come in and it sees lots of news coverage of the shouting and yelling, I’m really about connecting with people,” Jenkins said, “being accessible and available, answering any questions of anyone who comes up and asks me about it.
“So we’ve really got so many different ways of keeping connected with constituents by being available, and I work at that each and every day at my office.”
He also mentioned a telephone town hall that he conducted a few weeks ago.
When asked if he felt if there were any merits to hosting town halls as opposed to focusing on constituent visits, Jenkins responded that there isn’t “one perfect approach.”
“They all have their opportunities, but the bottom line is one of the things I’ve got a lot of credit for these last couple of years is for accessibility and availability. I’ve spent literally every day, all day, for over a week in the flood-prone areas following the floods of last year,” he said.
“There is not only one approach to keeping in touch with constituents. We are using lots of different ways,” he later said.
At a recent stop in Charleston, Capito said she has held numerous large and small meetings along with mobile office hours and constituent visits.
“I’m not opposed to town halls,” she said. “I’ve always had a full and open office and I’m listening to them all the time.”
When asked whether she sees merit in town halls as opposed to constituent visits, she said she felt “there is always merit to listening and hearing people’s opinions.”
Smith said constituent visits aren’t the same as hosting actual town halls.
“I think that when you get the honor of representing your constituents, you don’t get to choose which constituents you get to represent,” he said. “The reason why town halls are so important is because you don’t monitor the guest list. It’s one place where representatives get to meet with anyone who takes the time to come out. That’s precisely why they’re so important.”
Smith said it doesn’t have to be an either or situation, saying “the more democracy, the better.”
“One thing I hope for is that the biggest message we would give to the congressional district is that the people of West Virginia want to meet with you,” he said. “That’s a good thing. Our door is always open for any congressman or senator in the state that wants to hold one.”
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