U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis held his first in-person town hall meetings on Saturday, fielding comments and questions about hot-button issues such as health care and gun violence.

A few attendees in Lakeville thanked the Minnesota Republican for cutting taxes. But several expressed concerns about the meeting itself: Why, when so many people couldn’t get tickets, were there so many empty chairs?

About 60 people attended the meeting in Rosehenge Hall in Lakeville, the freshman representative’s second of three stops. That left open about 40 seats.

In Lakeville, and for similar meetings in Wabasha and Jordan, Lewis picked smaller venues partly to encourage “good conversation,” said his chief of staff, Amy Smith. She said there also were safety concerns because Lewis’ office received phone calls last week that Capitol Police deemed to be a threat.

“We issued 100 tickets to this, so if somebody didn’t show up, they didn’t show up,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who is seeking a second term, announced May 10 that he would hold three meetings across the Second Congressional District, a swing district that includes southeastern Twin Cities suburbs and rural areas to the south.

He had been among many members of Congress declining to hold in-person town halls, where lawmakers risk recorded confrontations and face safety concerns, in favor of “telephone town halls.” Lewis and his staffers pointed out that he’s held 19 such telephone meetings and 271 meetings with groups since he was elected in 2016.

But political opponents say that Lewis and other members of Congress are ducking the people they represent. Saturday’s events did little to quell such criticism, as demonstrators outside the hall in Lakeville accused Lewis of handpicking supporters for the limited tickets.

More than 40 protesters, many clad in pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts, gathered outside. “We’re unworthy of an audience with King Lewis I,” one protester’s sign said. “Fake town hall,” said another.

In a statement, Angie Craig, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Lewis in 2016 and is challenging him again this year, accused him of turning away hundreds of constituents.

“When voters need a special ticket just to speak to their member of Congress, that’s not a public event,” Craig said, pledging to hold public meetings at least once a month if elected.

Talking points

During his meeting in Lakeville, and in conversations with constituents afterward, Lewis explained why he’s pushed for an audit of the Department of Defense, which he described as bloated with 800,000 civilian employees. In criticizing the Affordable Care Act, he contended the Republican proposal would have made an effective replacement. He also addressed questions about gun policy in the wake of this week’s school shooting in Texas.

Lewis expressed concerns about “red flag” laws, which would allow law enforcement to remove guns from people believed to be in imminent danger of harming themselves or others, and questioned whether toughening gun laws would cut down on school shootings. Instead, he pressed for school safety. “I don’t want to do something that’s window dressing,” he said.

Afterward, the former radio talk show host noted that “the first five or six questions and comments were from folks I’d described as being opposed to me. So it’s not as though people aren’t getting their chance.”

“I just want to make certain it’s an actual dialogue when you do a town hall — and not the first campaign rally of 2018,” he continued. “Some folks want to turn this into a campaign gotcha moment, and that’s unfortunate.”

Eagan resident David Meyer, 57, said the meeting made clear that Lewis is willing to debate the issues: “It’s not easy when people disagree with you.”