Town hall tumult
Womack, Cotton get earfuls, but don’t expect them to change
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.