The headline brought back a lot of memories: “Mainers pressure Collins to hold town hall,” a Feb. 26 Maine Sunday Telegram story written by Colin Woodard.
From 1974 to 1982 I worked for Maine Congressman David Emery, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Maine almost every weekend. Those visits usually included at least one “Emery Town Meeting,” many held in rural towns all over Maine’s First Congressional District. Dave loved those and they were always well attended. The town meetings, open to all, allowed him to tell folks what was happening in the Capitol, and them to tell him about their ideas, hopes, and concerns.
The meetings were always respectful and often included refreshments for some informal mingling and talking. We took a poll during Dave’s last term and discovered that 65 percent of the people in his district said they had met him. That’s pretty amazing when you realize he represented about half a million people.
In the recent story on Sen. Susan Collins, Jeane Curran of Bangor, who was among a dozen protesters who accosted Collins outside a Bangor radio station, told Woodard, “Mainers have wanted a town hall for her to listen to all of us en masse so she gets the feeling of how extensive our fear and our anger is.”
I think that probably sums up very nicely why Sen. Collins is not hosting town hall gatherings. She’s already getting more fear and anger from her constituents than ever before. I know that when I wrote a column encouraging her to oppose Scott Pruitt for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, people actually personally delivered that column to her offices.
But they also expressed frustration that they couldn’t get through to her offices by phone. So, of course, she’s also getting criticized for not having more staff to answer the phones. In fact, calls to senators have risen from an average of 2,000 a week to 20,000, making it doubtful they could ever have enough staff to answer every call.
I do enjoy hearing from people who called Sen. Angus King and were astonished when he himself answered the call. Apparently he really enjoys that.
In fairness to Collins, we have to understand that Angus, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and Congressman Bruce Poliquin do not host town halls either. Poliquin hosts “call-in” meetings, and both he, Pingree, and King hold issue-specific meetings open to the public. Collins told Woodard she finds private meetings with constituents “more effective than a big forum.”
She says few people get to speak at public meetings, noting, “I think that’s why Maine senators have had a tradition of meeting with groups of constituents or having staff meet with them rather than holding these huge town halls where very few people get to speak and the level of civility is not that high.”
I have to report that lots of people spoke at Emery Town Meetings, and the level of civility was very high. People were respectful and happy that Dave had invited them to meet with him and traveled to their town to make that easy for them.
Part of the problem for Collins, as Woodard reported, is that she is a maverick Republican, one of the few to oppose President Donald Trump on some appointments and issues, and that makes her a target for both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are unhappy with her for opposing Trump, while Democrats are outraged that she is not opposing Trump all the time.
I challenge both Collins and leaders of groups demanding town halls to get together and try one. I ask Susan to give them one chance, and I ask the groups to work hard to make the town hall gathering civil and respectful. Maybe Angus could join her.
April Humphrey, a co-founder of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, told Woodard, “A town hall meeting or something like it would provide an opportunity for some real back-and-forth conversations with Collins, and that’s what we are looking for.”
Well, it’s not possible to have “some real back-and-forth” unless you are willing to listen to the other person.
Participants in the Collins town hall should come without signs and leave their chants at home. Some rules of procedure should also be applied, including limiting each speaker to one chance to talk, until everyone in the audience who wishes to speak has a chance.
Yes, I’d love to attend. And yes, I’ll have something to say!