A day before a scheduled town hall meeting, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer distributed a cautionary news release Tuesday warning that he would leave if the event gets raucous and reconsider similar gatherings in the future.
The message highlighted the sudden prominence of congressional town hall events. Typically low-key, often held in community centers or church meeting rooms, they rarely attract major attention. But recent weeks have seen opponents of President Donald Trump pack town hall meetings hosted by Republican members of Congress, and publicly call out lawmakers with no public events scheduled.
“Behavior that goes beyond the bounds of civil discourse is threatening to drive into extinction the civic institution known as a town-hall meeting,” read the missive from Emmer’s office. Activist groups on the left have been spreading word of Emmer’s Wednesday night event in Sartell.
The protest-like atmosphere at some of the forums recalls a similar dynamic early in the Obama administration, when conservative blowback against passage of the Affordable Care Act prompted confrontations at meetings held by Democratic members of Congress. It helped give rise to the Tea Party movement on the right.
Now Democrats are looking for a similar dynamic. Democrats who represent Minnesota in Washington, including Rep. Tim Walz and Rep. Betty McCollum, are advertising their own upcoming town hall events. McCollum, who hosted two town hall events in January and has four public events scheduled this week, is focusing some of her gatherings on topics targeted by Trump’s administration, including climate change and the Affordable Care Act.
“Our community’s voices are what drives me as I work to protect Minnesotans’ health care and hold President Trump accountable to the American people,” McCollum said.
Republican Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, of the state’s Second and Third Districts, have held recent “telephone town hall” events, but no public, in-person meetings in their districts. Pressed by constituents and activists for more public engagement, both Lewis and Paulsen have taken to social media to detail their own range of interactions.
In a statement, Paulsen’s office said he has held “more than 100 in-person town halls, telephone town halls, and Congress on Your Corner events. He has already held two town halls this year and will continue engaging with constituents on all sides of the issues in a productive manner.”
Lewis, serving his first term, said he has been “vigorously reaching out to folks in the Second District” through telephone town halls, visits to businesses and meetings with constituents who visit his Washington office. He said his schedule has been busy, but he intends to do large events, as time permits.
“I just want to make sure that I’m doing constructive, productive dialogue with residents, with businesses, with folks and of course during the telephone town halls,” he said. “I don’t want to allow somebody to orchestrate a political campaign for 2018 this soon. I think it’s a little bit too early for that. I’ve seen a little bit of that, and I don’t think that’s the best way to communicate.”
Some people in Lewis’ and Paulsen’s districts, however, don’t seem inclined to wait. Members of the progressive group Indivisible, which has been organizing around the country, have announced plans to show up at an upcoming Lewis fundraising event to call for a public town hall meeting.
Others residents, unaffiliated with Indivisible or other groups, have begun organizing their own town hall events — and then asking Lewis and Paulsen to attend.
Kelly Guncheon, of Plymouth, said he and his wife are the organizers of a Feb. 23 evening meeting that will be held at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth. He and others have spent the past few weeks calling Paulsen’s office daily, asking him to attend — and promising that the goal is a measured dialogue, rather than a protest. Guncheon said he is expecting about 400 people to turn out.
“We need to figure out a way to bring people together, and the only way to do it is to be civil to each other,” he said.