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They acknowledge that town hall forums are not always scenes of Norman Rockwell-like civility. “But that doesn’t legitimize not holding forums,” said Susan Moravec, the DFL chairwoman in the Second Congressional District, which is represented by Kline.
That sentiment is shared by Carol Stevenson, the Republican chairwoman of the First Congressional District, which is represented by Walz. “It’s their job to meet with constituents, and not just go to events that are favorable to them and meet with people who agree with them,” she said.
But even as town hall meetings are increasingly the targets of orchestrated campaigns, most remain fairly sedate affairs. Even at the height of the health care debate, “what you saw on YouTube were the most extreme examples,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, which monitors the practices of Capitol Hill offices.
Many options still open
Fitch argues there are still plenty of ways for lawmakers to interact with the public. “There is a myth that members of Congress are not accessible or difficult to reach,” he said. “In fact, [they] have an extraordinary plethora of means to interact, especially in the Internet age.”
Fitch includes the growing use of so-called tele-town halls, teleconferences that can reach tens of thousands of people at a time. “While they are less robust environments than in-person, face-to-face meetings, they reach literally 10 to 100 times more constituents,” he said. They also reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily attend a regular town hall meeting.
The popularity of camera phones also has altered the landscape for lawmakers, even at the State Fair. A video of Al Franken talking down a group of Tea Partiers at the 2009 State Fair has had nearly a million views.
Moreover, political “trackers” in the service of campaigns aren’t just confined to town hall meetings. “It’s no accident that Michele Bachmann was photographed with a corn dog in her mouth,” Moravec said of a widely-distributed fair photo of the Minnesota Republican. “Everything is more visible.”
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