WASHINGTON – It’s been years since U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen held a town hall meeting, in a hall, in a town in his district. Instead, every few weeks or months, he phones home.
“If you’re just joining, this is Congressman Erik Paulsen, welcoming you to our live telephone town hall meeting,” Paulsen told the 2,800 constituents listening on muted phones during a recent phone session.
Anyone with questions for their congressman, he said, could hit *3 and hold, please.
Using numbers provided by an outside contractor, Paulsen’s office dials as many as 50,000 households in his district at a time. Anyone who picks up the phone is given an invitation, a conference call code and a toll-free number to call within the next hour. The calls cycle among communities in the Third District, an affluent suburban crescent wrapped around the western Twin Cities metro. Most of the people on the call last week were listening in from Bloomington, Coon Rapids and Brooklyn Park.
These calls, Paulsen told the participants, are “just a great way to use technology to make sure we’re reaching out to folks” — technology, he said, that is “allowing me to more effectively [represent] you, by hearing directly from you as well.”
Many members of Congress have grown wary of town halls, where they risk on-camera confrontations with angry constituents, which in turn has provided fodder to political opponents to raise accusations of politicians dodging the people they represent.
In Minnesota, neither Paulsen nor neighboring Republican Rep. Jason Lewis have attended a town hall gathering in more than a year — or in Paulsen’s case, years. Their Minnesota GOP colleague, Rep. Tom Emmer, held a high-profile town hall in Stearns County in February 2017 but has held nothing like it since, though Emmer did frequently hold town halls around his district in 2015 and 2016.
Democratic members of Congress from Minnesota have held such gatherings more frequently since the beginning of 2017, though some adopt different formats. Some, like Reps. Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison, have convened issue-specific forums. Just in the next two weeks, Ellison is holding a community forum on civic participation in Minneapolis on Wednesday and another Minneapolis event the following week to talk about the new federal tax law.
On his call, Paulsen is chatty, at ease and eager to talk, reeling off a laundry list of his plans, policies and positions — from his support for a ban on bump stocks to his concerns about the Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs. He also took questions.
“I don’t watch all these tweets,” Paulsen said in response to a question about what he, personally, would do if the president followed through on tweeted threats to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. “My view is that the independent counsel needs to remain in place. … It would be a big problem, I could just tell you, on a bipartisan basis, if there were any move afoot to fire the special counsel.”
Last year, the Washington Post estimated that just 40 percent of congressional Democrats and 18 percent of Republicans held town halls during the long August recess, and those who did sometimes encountered atmospheres more like protest rallies than community forums.
But Paulsen’s refusal to hold a traditional town hall has been a source of intense frustration for some critics in his district, one of just a few Republican-held congressional districts in the nation that Hillary Clinton carried. Protesters have picketed on bridges with lighted “Town Hall Now” signs and staged a town hall of their own with hundreds of people in the audience but no congressman at the podium. The group Indivisible MN03 collects, transcribes and posts Paulsen “robocalls” on YouTube.
Paulsen phones home often. Karl Bunday of Minnetonka, who listened on last week’s call, estimates he’s been invited to participate in at least four or five such calls in the past year. The invitations tend to be last-minute and don’t follow any sort of timetable Bunday has been able to detect.
“The calls come entirely by surprise,” said Bunday, a longtime Republican who voted for Paulsen in every election until 2016, when he broke from the party over Donald Trump. “We’d really like to have a meeting with Rep. Paulsen — we’re talking an in-person town hall. An actual town hall.”
Mia Olson of Bloomington picked up the ringing phone by chance — nothing on the caller ID, she said, indicated that it was an incoming call from a congressional office. She dialed in to the call, punched in the code she’d been given and hit *3 to ask her question. At the end of the call, Paulsen told those still waiting to stay on the line. They would be sent to a voice mailbox, he said, and either he or a staffer would get back to them.
“I waited on the line for 45 minutes and was disconnected,” she said. “I would like him to look me in the eyes and answer the question.”
Paulsen has said he prefers a more low-key style of constituent outreach: open office hours, private meetings and telephone town halls. He does not, he has said, want to “be shouted down by others who want to be boisterous or have other intentions.”
There was no boisterous shouting during this week’s call. Paulsen opened it up for questions from the queue of people waiting patiently on hold. For almost an hour, he fielded questions about flu shots, gun violence, prescription drug prices and two anguished calls from Liberian constituents, fearful that the Trump administration was going to strike down the protected status that had allowed families like theirs to flee civil war and settle in Minnesota years or decades ago.
Lisa from Edina wanted to know how he justified the $1.5 trillion that Congress’ new tax bill added to the federal deficit: “How are you going to assure that that does not end up in the middle class’ lap to pay for that?” she asked.
“Both parties put us in this position,” Paulsen said. “It’s going to take both parties to pull us out.”
Adam Jennings one of the Democrats running to unseat Paulsen in November, has pledged to hold at least four town halls a year if elected, starting with a mammoth all-nighter to allow Third District residents to get seven years’ worth of town hall questions off all their chests.
“Essentially Erik gets to sit back, choose what he wants to answer, and if he’s not straightforward or if he wants to dance around the question, there’s no way to hold him into account,” said Jennings, a Tonka Bay City Council member and National Guard veteran. “I think in large part, Erik Paulsen is a coward. He is scared to face his constituents.”
As Paulsen wrapped up the call, he asked the entire group to make their voices heard: Press 1 if they support the president’s tariffs; press 2 for no.
“While I don’t have the answers to a lot of these challenging questions,” Paulsen said, “hearing your perspective does make a big difference.”