With coffee shop conversations and church basement chats curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, some St. Paul residents did not have to go further than their laptops to get a moment with their legislators one recent Saturday.
"No specific question today," one participant wrote in a Zoom chat. "Just enormous anxiety and need to feel 'together.' "
State Sen. Erin Murphy and Reps. Dave Pinto and Kaohly Vang Her, all Democrats from St. Paul, held this joint town hall via Zoom in January, where more than 100 people could ask questions.
Many had policy on their minds, but some attended the virtual town hall for comfort and community during a time when almost nothing is normal — from living and working through a pandemic to national political unrest.
"The more that we're able to communicate with Minnesotans, and they're able to bring their powerful voices to bear on the decisions that are happening here, the better the result will be," Murphy said.
With much of the typical activity at the Minnesota State Capitol taking place remotely, some legislators are brainstorming new ways to keep in contact with their constituents during the first full session since the pandemic started.
The remote nature has created a barrier to people's ability to participate in government — and a responsibility for lawmakers to continue to connect with people, said Murphy.
With virtual town halls, Pinto hopes that they can come close to replicating the experience of people coming into the Capitol and getting to see their legislator.
"The most rewarding aspect of this is when a constituent comes to me with a concern or an idea where I can say, 'What can we do together to address your concern or to move your idea forward?' " Pinto said. "But you can only work together if you're communicating and engaging with each other."
Freshman Rep. Donald Raleigh, R-Circle Pines, said he spends hours each day responding to e-mails, text messages and phone calls from his constituents.
"I've committed both in writing and when I'm talking to people, I want to be as transparent and accessible as I possibly can be," Raleigh said. For him, that also means going to local restaurants and talking to a few constituents in person.
Raleigh's first Zoom town hall in late January had just five people in attendance. But he's committed to holding them every two weeks, even though they don't make up for the community meetings and dinners that he misses.
"I love potlucks because we grab a cup of coffee, you stand around, you talk to people that have been there, done that and lived through what we consider a crisis. They're like, 'yeah that was last Thursday,' " Raleigh said.
Even with these efforts, not everyone can access online community engagement, said Benjamin Toff, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism. Reaching people who are not comfortable using digital tools must be a priority, he said.
"People have a chance to tune in to an elected official doing a webinar or a Q&A speaking on some topic, and they have the opportunity to ask questions, but it's not the same as having a conversation at a coffee shop where I think for constituents, they feel like they're actually being heard," Toff said.
The kind of highly engaged person who would normally head to the Capitol to meet with a legislator will have no issues getting in contact during the pandemic. Elected officials should work to stay in touch with other constituents, who would typically run into their lawmaker in the neighborhood or at a festival, said Dan Myers, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.
"That's how I would think about the big danger, especially with a Legislature like ours. Many legislators have jobs outside of the Legislature, so their lives have also been affected by COVID and they may have less time that they're able to commit to doing outreach," Myers said.
This is a focus at the federal level, too. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who publicly shared her experience during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection on Instagram this week, offered a once-a-term digital and social media class for her congressional colleagues on Wednesday.
Murphy tested out a TikTok account during her re-election campaign last fall and hopes there will be more opportunities to connect with her constituents on the app during the session.
"We made just a few additions to the world of TikTok, and I was surprised at how much uptick there was right away and want to figure out how to use that platform effectively not just in an election element, but also in the governance that we're doing together," Murphy said.
Former state Sen. Matt Little picked up more than 160,000 followers on TikTok, but most legislators avoid the social media platform, keeping to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Raleigh joked that no one wants to hear from a first-term lawmaker, but he's encouraged by the feedback he's received from his constituents.
"Many people are telling me that they're missing that sense of community and the connection," Raleigh said. "I think we're trying very hard to figure out ways to connect in any way that we can."
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112