Forget facing audiences at town halls back home.
North Carolina’s senators and congressmen, timid about facing angry constituents who could overrun a town hall, are turning to technology instead, holding virtual town halls.
Many constituents aren’t pleased.
“They all should be having town halls. Now, I understand they can’t be everywhere but, we’re the ones who voted for them. The least they could do is show up and let us tell them what we’re happy with and what we’re not,” said P.J. Lofland, an independent voter from Clemmons, who organizes a weekly conservatives luncheon in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Freshman lawmaker U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, Republican from North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District said interactive telephone town halls work better and can reach a bigger audience than a local public forum.
“We’re able to connect with 18,000 people at a time. (At a town hall), you maybe get 50 people,” Budd said. “So, we’ll do some face-to-face meetings but we’ve found that telephone town halls are very effective.
“We represent everyone here – people who agree with us and people who don’t. We want to make sure that the town halls don’t get, for instance, hijacked,” Budd said during an interview in Winston-Salem.
Over the district work week, Budd is making the rounds at Chamber of Commerce events, visiting hospitals and medical professionals to talk about national healthcare policy and meeting privately with some constituents in his office in Advance, N.C.
But he’s avoiding bigger public forums. So are some others, and the lack of town halls in North Carolina this week during Congress’ district work period has come under scrutiny, largely by Democratic-leaning groups and people unhappy with President Donald Trump.
Even some conservatives aren’t happy that only one North Carolina member is holding an in-person town hall this week. That event will be held Saturday by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson, N.C.
Another lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, Republican from Charlotte, will host a telephone town hall Thursday. Four lawmakers – U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, and U.S. Reps. David Rouzer, a Republican, and David Price, a Democrat – are traveling out of state on official congressional business trips.
Lofland, who lives in U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx’s 5th Congressional District, said the Republican is usually accessible and “squeezes everything into her schedule that she can.” But, this week, Foxx’s office has not announced any public forums or question-and-answer town halls in the district. She has, in the past, regularly hosted telephone town halls.
Lofland sees in-person town halls as ideal for House members because they are elected to serve in the chamber “closer to the people” and have to run for office every two years. Telephone town halls and Facebook video chats, Lofland said, don’t cut it.
“They’re a joke ... They can cut you off. And, you have to give them your question ahead of time,” she said.
The set-up of telephone town halls vary. Some offices use email lists or call district residents the day before a conference call to invite them to participate. Others get the word out with social media and post instructions on how to join the call.
Telephone town halls can function similarly to a radio broadcast, where the member of Congress takes emailed or screened phone call questions and answers the questions live while participants on the call listen in. Live Facebook chat sessions include constituents asking questions via comments on the social media page.
Others say in-person town halls are too often invitations for a shouting match or for a protester to over-run the forum.
“They tend to be a shout-down session almost ... I don’t care for that,” said Linda Banks, an Independent from Winston-Salem. In lieu of a town hall, Banks said, she sometimes writes letter to members of Congress and, in the past, has received responses.
Banks attended Lofland’s conservative luncheon this week focused on the imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act. She said it would have been nice to have seen a member of Congress at the event considering healthcare is a top issue.
Still, Banks said many of the people demanding in-person town halls this year appear to be furious at Trump and want an opportunity to voice discontent.
“It’s not just being heard – it’s feeling like you got some attention and that’s for either side,” Banks said.