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Op-Ed: Note to NJ Pols — A Few Boos and Tough Questions Won’t Kill You

Representatives who don’t have the courage to publicly engage aren’t serving their constituents — and don’t deserve to serve

josh henne
Joshua Henne

I don’t agree with a lot of what Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7) has done in Congress these past few years as he’s lurched right. However, I 100 percent respect him for, to date, being the only New Jersey Republican doing his job by meeting with constituents in public forums without complaint.

While every single other GOP House colleague refused to face the people, Lance hosted two separate town halls. On February 22, he met with nearly 1,000 constituents inside Raritan Valley Community College – with an additional 400 in an overflow room and 550 protesting outside. Last Saturday, Lance hosted another packed house at the same location.

Conversely, “cowardly” is the only word describing the refusal of Reps. Chris Smith (NJ-4), Tom MacArthur (NJ-3), Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11), and Frank LoBiondo (NJ-2) to hold town halls. Their rebuff is terrible for their constituents, this state, and democracy. A PPP poll shows 81 percent of people of all political stripes disgusted with those dodging. Some 81 percent of Independents and even 73 percent of Republicans believe Congress should participate in town halls.

Finally, on Friday, MacArthur caved – announcing a hastily-arranged Monday town hall. More on that below.

With congressional offices shirking their duty, regular folks took to hosting citizens town halls … whether their representatives have the guts to show up or not. For example, when constituents reached out to Frelinghuysen requesting a town hall – some even bringing baked goods — his office responded that it couldn’t find space on short notice. So these people secured locations in each county he represents. It’s no surprise Frelinghuysen didn't grace any of these five public forums over four nights — which almost 1,400 attended. He hasn’t held town halls in years and flat out refused to answer nearly 3,000 petition-signers requesting one.

The night of Lance’s first town hall, over 400 held a citizens town hall that Smith ducked at Monmouth County’s library — 200 inside, and at least that many outside the hallway and spilling onto the sidewalk. At the same time, 550 showed up to a town hall in Marlton that MacArthur snubbed. Insulting his constituents, MacArthur instead scheduled a barely publicized radio interview in Toms River. He said “I'm not interested in being baited into a sideshow where my constituents are the ones who are the losers. Their voice gets stolen.” This false framing is an affront to public service. For weeks, MacArthur’s been the one silencing constituents, diminishing democracy, and muzzling complaints/concerns. MacArthur even tweeted to The New York Times, clarifying he didn’t cancel town halls, he simply never scheduled them in the first place. He doesn’t comprehend this makes it worse.

Taking a page from Trump’s misleading playbook, MacArthur’s staff parrots NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s lies that paid, militants disrupters are bused into town halls. Gov. Christie Whitman shot down this fake news: “These are people with better things to do with their lives than stand outside a town hall meeting for hours waiting to get in. Or being left outside and still around to be heard.”

Initially, I thought MacArthur’s lame excuses about “hijacked” town halls meant perhaps he didn’t have confidence in staff ability to ensure constituents fill seats. Lance’s competent office made certain every ticket-holding audience member was a constituent. Lance told Fox News “I’ve never experienced paid protesters. I don't think that was true the other night.” Lance kicked off his second event, proclaiming, "I don't believe anybody in this audience is paid, ladies and gentlemen.”

Nonetheless, despite his protestations, MacArthur finally relented. However, his town hall is rife with trouble. After several weeks of constituents clamoring, MacArthur announced his Monday forum via a Friday dump, compared to Lance’s fair registration system and giving ample time. It was held in Waretown — a tiny, rural Pinelands town — smack dab in the district’s Southeastern-most portion, closer to many Smith and LoBiondo voters. Moreover, MacArthur’s first-come, first-served policy allows supporters like the Second Amendment Society to stack the room. The hour-plus, rush-hour drive makes attendance difficult for Philadelphia suburb residents. Knowing full well the wave of town-hall requests, MacArthur buckled after a month of ignoring. So, why cap 250 attendees at an out-of-the-way, difficult-to-get-to location, while highlighting tight security?

Claiming “constituent communication,” Frelinghuysen and MacArthur spent weeks engaging in window dressing of barely publicized teleconferences instead of face-to-face, public interaction. They hid behind telephones, clinging to tightly scripted notes without looking the people they purport to represent in the eye. Frelinghuysen’s first invitation-only call had just one reporter, who found out about it at the last minute. This is bunk. Just like MacArthur’s surprise pop-in to a group of 20 local Democrats for a photo op. Just like his tweet about “meeting with constituents”– when the truth is they had to track MacArthur down to a radio station because he ducked their town hall at the same time.

Furthermore, it takes a special level of hypocrisy for MacArthur to bellyache about out-of-district folks bending his ear. The year before running for his South Jersey seat, MacArthur served as Mayor of Randolph — 90 miles away in Morris County. Smith would also be wise to refrain from impugning protesters with residency lies. Smith actually lives outside D.C. — his daughter paid in-state tuition to a Virginia university. Perhaps, if 4th District residents drove four hours down to Smith’s home base, he’d meet with them.

Amazingly, Smith hasn’t held a single town hall for a quarter-century. There’s now a petition circulating with almost 1,500 signatures imploring him to at long last, engage. As a constituent, I’ve added my name. Yet, Smith’s spokesman says “he wouldn’t attend a partisan event disguised as a town hall,” as it’s not “an honest effective means of communication.”

Smith and his ilk can spinelessly continue — at their peril — to contend those upset are not from their districts all they like. But they’d be wrong. They’re also missing a golden opportunity to hear what their neighbors are thinking in real time and show they care about these reasonable concerns.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Gov. Chris Christie is spot on chiding those shirking responsibility, saying, “I understand why members of Congress don’t like it. But you know what? You asked for the job.” Hosting over 160 town halls, Christie understands this format’s importance. Whitman implored: “Continue to hold the town meetings as uncomfortable as they are. They’re your constituents. They don’t ask much of you.” New Jersey’s delegation should listen to the last two statewide Republicans.

Recently, a GOP consultant asked if I’d advise any representative to host a town hall in this climate. Without hesitation, the answer is unequivocally yes. Ducking is bad to begin with. It looks worse compared to those Republicans facing fire. And New Jersey’s Democrats showed up during the height of the Obamacare battles.

In 2009, Rep. Frank Pallone (NJ-6) held town halls in Red Bank and Piscataway – with one moved to a larger auditorium to accommodate swelling crowds. Even then, as the first 250 residents wrapped up, another batch filed-in for their chance to let Pallone know their concerns and even yell and call him names. Rep. Bill Pascrell (NJ-9) hosted a similar barnburner at Montclair University. Over 1,000 came — everyone from local Tea Partiers to Planned Parenthood — with an overflow room of an additional 250. Another 250 attended Rep. Rush Holt’s (NJ-12) Middletown Arts Center town hall. Hundreds rallied outside after fire marshals denied entry. To ensure transparency, Holt’s staff enlisted boy scouts to sit on stage, selecting queries at-random. Even they got booed.

To NJTV, Lance laid-out the precise reasons town halls are essential to the fabric of America and representative government: “I want to hear from all of my constituents, even those who didn't vote for me or whose opinions may differ from my own. I try to impart information, and I certainly receive information from those who attended the town hall.” Regardless of partisan affiliation, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. All should agree it’s the way everyone deserves their representative to act. If someone won’t meet with the people, he/she isn’t fit to represent the people. Some say Lance doesn’t deserve kudos for simply doing his job. But, in these trying times, such intestinal fortitude shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Those avoiding fact-to-face interaction should listen to former Rep. Gabby Giffords (AZ-8), who was shot in the head at a “Congress on Your Corner” event. When Rep Louie Gohmert (TX-1) invoked this assassination attempt as reason to skip town halls, Giffords pushed back: “I believed listening to my constituents was the most basic and core tenant of the job I was hired to do. I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning my offices were open to the public. Ron Barber — at my side that Saturday, who was shot multiple times, then elected to Congress in my stead — held town halls. It’s what the people deserve in a representative.”

At its core, serving in Congress is about public service. But if a representative doesn’t have the courage to publicly engage, they aren’t serving their constituents, and don’t deserve to serve. If members won’t listen to Giffords due to trouble heeding the words of anyone who doesn't hold their worldview, they should reflect upon Christie’s admonition to Republicans, “Welcome to the real world of responsibility.”

Joshua Henne is a Democratic strategist and founder of White Horse Strategies — a communications and political consulting firm.

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