Town hall tu­mult

Wom­ack, Cot­ton get ear­fuls, but don’t ex­pect them to change

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Greg Har­ton Greg Har­ton is ed­i­to­rial page edi­tor for the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. Con­tact him by email at ghar­ton@nwadg.com or on Twit­ter @NWAGreg.

Last week’s town hall meet­ings in North­west Arkansas were vi­tal events that

ac­com­plished vir­tu­ally noth­ing in terms of gov­ern­ing this na­tion.

Third Con­gres­sional District U.S. Rep. Steve Wom­ack and U.S. Sen. Tom Cot­ton held town hall-style meet­ings. Wom­ack’s, at West Fork’s city ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing, was nat­u­rally much smaller, but the room was packed to the gills and oth­ers who couldn’t fit in were left in the park­ing lot.

Cot­ton’s event vir­tu­ally filled the Spring­dale High Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter with a crowd es­ti­mated at 2,000, with plenty of oth­ers left out­side.

The other fed­eral law­maker whose rep­re­sen­ta­tion in­cludes North­west Arkansas, U.S. Sen. John Booz­man, is draw­ing so­cial me­dia jeers with his town hall plans. That’s be­cause he’s do­ing it with­out a town and with­out a hall, and that will trans­late into a much more con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment for Booz­man’s Q&A ses­sion. Booz­man plans a tele­phone town hall meet­ing at 7:30 p.m. tonight in which peo­ple have to sign up on his Se­nate web page (www.booz­man.se­nate.gov).

Un­doubt­edly, Booz­man’s ap­proach will en­cour­age more sub­stan­tive talk on is­sues, but crit­ics view Booz­man’s ap­proach as cow­ardly. To get any­thing like the un­ruly crowds Cot­ton and Wom­ack faced last week, the tele­phone town hall will need the fol­low­ing push-but­ton cues: Press (1) to ask a ques­tion; press (2) to broad­cast a hys­ter­i­cal laugh as the se­na­tor an­swers a ques­tion; press (3) to shout “liar”; press (4) to scream “you work for us!”; press (5) to ex­claim “in­ves­ti­gate Trump and Rus­sia!”; press (6) to pro­claim “with­out im­mi­grants, there wouldn’t be a United States!”; and press (7) to ex­press these views in Span­ish.

If an eighth op­tion in­cludes an in­vi­ta­tion for a half-off sub­scrip­tion to “The Pro­gres­sive,” it might be a de­coy.

Cot­ton’s town hall ses­sion was, just by sheer size, the most ca­cophonous of last week’s gath­er­ings. Any­one who ex­pected a rea­son­able dis­cus­sion of po­lit­i­cal is­sues left dis­ap­pointed. It was a po­lit­i­cal rally in re­v­erse: Rather than the ob­ject of ado­ra­tion from a hand­picked crowd, the guy who sched­uled the event was the tar­get of the au­di­ence’s barbs.

The town hall meet­ings were nec­es­sary events, at least for any law­maker who wants to le­git­i­mately main­tain he’s pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for av­er­age Arkansans to give feed­back on fed­eral poli­cies.

Real­is­ti­cally, any­one who says they haven’t had a chance to speak with Steve Wom­ack hasn’t tried very hard. He’s not very hard to find when he’s back from Wash­ing­ton mak­ing the rounds in the Third District. Cot­ton, on the other hand, rep­re­sents the en­tire state and is a lit­tle harder to spot, un­less one turns on Wolf Bl­itzer in “The Sit­u­a­tion Room” or catches him on “Fox and Friends.”

Wom­ack ap­peared to get a lit­tle flus­tered at his hos­tile crowd, sug­gest­ing some of them didn’t even live within his con­gres­sional district. That mir­rors claims at other GOP town halls in which se­na­tors or con­gress­men claim or­ga­nized ac­tivists over­whelmed real, hon­est-to-good­ness con­stituents.

That’s where Cot­ton sur­prised me with an­swers that sounded al­most smooth enough to have come out of Bill Clin­ton or Barack Obama’s mouths.

Af­ter one speaker as­sured Cot­ton she wasn’t a paid pro­tester, he as­sured her he didn’t care whether she was paid or not, he wel­comed all Arkansans to his town hall. A day or two later, Cot­ton con­tin­ued as he ap­peared on, yes, “Fox and Friends.”

“There’s no doubt they were or­ga­nized, but you don’t give up your First Amend­ment rights just be­cause you’re well or­ga­nized, so I was happy to hear from so many Arkansans,” he said.

Happy? Well, he han­dled the screams and anger far bet­ter than I would have, but then again, he’s seen mil­i­tary com­bat.

“Look, it’s not of­ten that we get 2,200 of our vot­ers to come out and lis­ten to us, even some who don’t agree with us,” Cot­ton said on the TV news pro­gram. “It’s im­por­tant that they know we’re there to lis­ten to them, not just talk at them but to lis­ten to them.”

That will bring scoffs from crit­ics who screamed “you work for us,” rais­ing the ridicu­lous sug­ges­tion that any Repub­li­can or Demo­crat would start ad­vo­cat­ing po­si­tions con­trary to what got him elected solely be­cause some of his con­stituents feel dif­fer­ently. Sev­eral peo­ple urged Wom­ack to add more taxes on “the 1 per­cent.” Wom­ack con­fi­dently re­sponded that he’s cer­tain the peo­ple of his district did not send him to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to raise taxes.

Both men have rea­son for con­fi­dence. Wom­ack got 77 per­cent of the votes in his re-elec­tion bid last Novem­ber. Cot­ton earned nearly 57 per­cent of the vote in 2014, de­feat­ing an in­cum­bent Demo­crat from a long­stand­ing Arkansas po­lit­i­cal fam­ily and two oth­ers. And both find com­fort in the fact Don­ald Trump, with all his short­com­ings that even frus­trate peo­ple within his own party, earned nearly 61 per­cent of Arkansans’ votes for pres­i­dent last year.

“You work for us?” If that trans­lates into a silly ex­pec­ta­tion Cot­ton or Wom­ack will adopt the po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions of the left, those folks are go­ing to be con­stantly dis­ap­pointed by their em­ployee.

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