Cravaack takes flak for town hall accessibility, avoiding constituency

Cravaack protester
Responding to growing criticism, including from protesters yesterday like the one above, Rep. Chip Cravaack announced that he will host an open town hall meeting Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the Duluth airport.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Responding to growing criticism that he has avoided his district's largest population and media center, U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack announced today that he will host an open town hall meeting Wednesday at the Duluth airport.

Cravaack, a freshman Republican who represents Minnesota's 8th District, has been taken to task by constituents and national publications for the meetings he's held during the August recess. The only free, open-to-all meetings took place only in relatively remote places that are long drives from Duluth.

Political observers say such tactics increasingly are taken by politicians to avoid events that often produce heated public exchanges such as the heated town hall meetings that followed votes by Congress on the federal health care overhaul.

Cravaack relented after encountering a group of about 50 protestors waiting in the rain outside Grandma's Restaurant Saloon and Grill on the shores of Lake Superior, where Cravaack had a lunch meeting with local members of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. The event was not open to the public and required a $10 admission fee.

The protestors chanted "jobs, not cuts." But their main demand was for an open and free public meeting in Duluth.

Cravaack saw the crowd and strode over.

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"You guys want a town hall?" he asked. "OK, be at the Duluth airport tomorrow, 4 o'clock. Everybody go home, dry off, get warm, and we'll see you tomorrow at 4 o'clock at the airport."

Protestor Allen Richardson of Duluth was quick to declare victory through his bullhorn.

"There would not be a town hall tomorrow if it weren't for the constant stream of public pressure being put on by you, the constituents that Congressman Cravaack is supposed to represent," he said.

During the August recess, Cravaack has repeatedly taken heat for refusing to hold a free and open-to-all meeting in Duluth. Critics have accused him of only allowing so-called "Pay-Per-View" events, where access is controlled and may require payment.

In response, Cravaack said he has hosted more town meetings than any of his Minnesota colleagues. But the two meetings this month were in remote areas, and a long drive from Duluth.

That's by design, the congressman said.

"We've concentrated our town halls actually on cities that do not have offices. That's what we've done," Cravaack said. "We've gone to the district; we've gone to the people to make sure they have accessibility as well."

Cravaack said he made the decision to have a town hall tomorrow after a morning event was shortened and his schedule opened up. He said he's surprised at how much attention the town hall issue has received.

"I've been in Duluth a lot. I've gone to a lot of different places, I've gone to forums, I've talked to people [and] I've talked to job creators," he said. "I was at the union temple before I came here, talking to the unions about how we create jobs, how we get jobs rolling in the 8th District."

Such limited access forums typically don't spark the kind of angry outbursts that have characterized a lot of town hall meetings in the past several years. In 2009, tea party activists used them as a way to galvanize opposition to the federal health care overhaul.

Newly-elected Republicans to Congress learned how damaging such forums — and the Internet videos that result —-- can be for incumbents, Washington University political scientist Steven Smith said.

"I think the Republicans this summer caught wind of the fact that Democrats intended to turn the tables on them... that they were likely to face a firestorm, that cameras and microphones were likely to be there," Smith said. "This wasn't the kind of publicity that they wanted to receive."

A bipartisan non-profit called No Labels surveyed all the members of the GOP-controlled House, and found that 60 percent were not holding any public meetings during the August recess.

The survey suggests the paucity of public meetings can't be a coincidence, said Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American enterprise institute.

"They've probably had their national congressional pollsters say to them, 'Don't do town halls now, because what will happen is, your opponents will organize just the way that we did against them,' " Ornstein said.

Town halls are one of the best ways for members of Congress to hear ideas and gauge the tenor of the times, Ornstein said.

But as civility fades from politics, town hall meetings may become less frequent if members of Congress don't feel they can hold civil conversations with their constituents.