Getting creative with tele-town halls in New Jersey

On election day 2016, our congressman, Rodney Frelinghuysen, the soon to be named Chair of Appropriations, had not held a public town hall in over 3 years. He was cozily comfortable in his inherited position (both his father and grandfather served in Congress) and hadn’t faced a real challenge in over 20 years—unless one counts Michael Moore’s stunt to put a ficus tree on the ballot against him in 2002. He still spoke the moderate message of the traditional “Rockefeller Republicans” of Northern New Jersey, but his voting record betrayed a hard right slide for years—though few were noticing or calling him out on it.

Like so many other groups, we started in November by calling our congressman to demand that he meet with constituents in public at long last. To further spread the word about our group and Frelinghuysen’s dismal record, we wrote a petition demanding a town hall, eventually gathering over 3,000 in-district signatures. We were able to get local media to cover our petition and our weekly Fridays with Frelinghuysen protests.

By the time we delivered the town hall petition request in early February, we knew his negative stance toward public meetings: that town halls were just for shouting, that finding a venue was hard, that he already meets with constituents at events (photo-ops, not public conversations), and that his so-called tele-town halls were sufficient for him to hear from those he represents.

Putting the pressure on

However, these conference calls were not announced ahead of time; calls came on random weekdays from out-of-state IDs. There was no recording available, no way to dial or log in. There’s no way to write questions or see those of others, and no way for press to cover what was said. As our disability coordinator will point out, there is also no way for the hearing impaired to participate in the calls. There was no way to log on online, and no steps had been taken to make the call accessible to those with disabilities, meaning a whole constituency was excluded from being able to participate at all.

Perhaps most importantly, they lacked the sense of a community coming together with its leaders to discuss mutual concerns and possible solutions. As one local organizer noted, “We are primates, we need to see each other’s faces.” So, along with our 3,000 signatures, we delivered a personal invitation to any or all of five town halls we’d arranged for the February recess at four different venues around the district.

Frelinghuysen declined our invitations via spokesman, citing tele-town halls as his preferred means of communicating with constituents. We immediately responded, via blog post and press release, identifying problems with lack of access and no advance notice. For the first time, Frelinghuysen’s office changed their tele-town hall protocols by disclosing the upcoming date and posting a signup widget on their website. Finally, constituents had a chance to prepare and a forum (however inadequate) to engage directly with Frelinghuysen. We helped get the word out by pushing the details on social media. Hundreds of constituents marked their calendars to pick up any call the next Tuesday at 5:00.

As the tele-town hall began, NJ11th members reacted in real-time on social media, sharing their frustration with evasive answers, opportunistic interruptions (cutting off callers trying to ask pointed follow ups), and with the apparent pattern of cherry-picking friendly callers posing inconsequential questions.

At one point in the call, it sounded as if Frelinghuysen committed himself to using his committee chairmanship to block funding for Trump’s border wall. That passing statement could have been news-making, had he made it a traditional town hall with media present. Unfortunately, we had no recording and Frelinghuysen’s office never published any transcripts. Despite requests for recordings from the press, there was no way to hold him accountable. We’d have to be more prepared.

Making Tele-Town Halls Accountable

His next was scheduled for the end of February. Our teams were ready to record, post and tweet, and dozens were armed with pointed questions based on specifics of his record.

We posted the entire audio file on our website, using Soundcloud. (Recording is permitted under New Jersey state law allowing for One Party recording of calls.) We had multiple team members block off time to transcribe the full 50 minutes of audio, and within 24 hours, we posted a transcript. Local reporters were also able to cover this tele-town hall for the first time. In their coverage, they thanked our group directly for making the resources available, and reinforced our key demand that Frelinghuysen hold actual town halls.

During the calls, our members enthusiastically embraced the opportunities to inject real issues and concerns into these heavily curated forums and shared tips on being heard. Members prepared and shared questions and data in advance. To avoid being cut off, people were advised to interrupt the initial answer with their follow up question. Frelinghuysen is extremely partial to veterans so leading with “I’m a vet” (if one is) seemed to win a lot more time. Being armed with his voting record and asking him about specific votes nearly always tripped him up as he would answer, “I don’t have the bill in front of me.”

Our group has effectively used these strategies to make our voices heard on subsequent tele-town hall forums on March 20th, May 9th, and June 27th. It seems the more we draw attention to them, the less frequent these calls have become.

We share everyone’s frustrations with tele-town hall forums. These faux town halls strip away any substantial constituent feedback and fail to offer meaningful dialog. However, we’ve recognized that these forums can be a means of compelling our congressman to answer uncomfortable questions in a quasi public forum, our concerns can get a wider audience when one of our members breaks through and asks a tough question, and perhaps most importantly, the inadequacies of the forum as implemented as a means of public address are brought into the glare of sunlight. Group preparation, creating transcripts, and live post/tweet commentary have become key strategies to bringing greater accountability to these calls.