Kanjorski to continue with town hall meetings by telephone

June 18, 2010

Cookouts, baseball games, fireworks and town hall meetings held by your congressman in hot, humid rooms. Each one is a long-standing summer tradition but only the first three will be held in the state’s 11th Congressional District this summer.

U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, has announced that he will forego the face-to-face town hall meetings for telephone town halls once again this summer. It’s a decision he’s not alone in making. Other congressmen across the state, mainly Democrats, have also announced they either won’t be holding the traditional town hall gatherings in their districts or haven’t decided if they would.

“I have held many town meetings over the years in many different formats. I have found that telephone town meetings can be especially effective because I can interact with as many as 8,000 Northeastern Pennsylvanians on a single phone call,” Kanjorski said Thursday. “Telephone town meetings provide a unique and convenient forum to hear the concerns of my constituents and answer their questions live over the phone. I have received very positive feedback from participants on these calls.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee has jumped on this trend, claiming it proves Democrats are running scared and don’t want to risk being attacked at a public appearance or saying the wrong thing that could cost them votes in November’s election. Every congressional district in the state is on the ballot this fall.

“Paul Kanjorski’s failure to hold open, public town hall meetings smacks of arrogance and proves just how out-of-touch he is from voters who want transparency and a voice in Congress,” said NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola.

Kanjorski will face Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, a Republican, this fall for the seat. Twice before Kanjorski has defeated Barletta, including 2008.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said in election years, legislators and their handlers see everything through “the campaign lens.” He said those who are not participating in the town hall meetings this year are taking “a calculated risk.”

“It’s part of election strategy,” said Borick, a Throop native who keeps an eye on Northeast Pennsylvania politics. “They think they have a better situation for themselves if they don’t go out and do town halls.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, D-Dimock Township, also faces an election battle in November against Republican Tom Marino, of Lycoming Township. He is one of only three of the 11 incumbent House Democrats in the state that have confirmed they’ll be holding traditional town hall meetings this summer, according to a story Wednesday in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Reps. Jason Altmire of McCandless, and Mark Critz of Johnstown, are the other two.

Josh Drobnyk, a spokesman for Carney, said the congressman holds meetings with residents in nearly all of the 14 counties within the 10th Congressional District every year. He’s already done so in Snyder and Lycoming counties this year.

“Congressman Carney holds town hall meetings throughout the district every year because he believes it is important to listen to the hard-working families of northeast and central Pennsylvania. This year is no different,” Drobnyk said. “He has already held a number of issue-oriented meetings with constituents and will continue to do so. He will balance those meetings with his military commitments. Additional town halls will be scheduled when the congressional voting calendar permits later this summer.”

Carney is a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves and it’s unknown when his active duty requirements will be scheduled this summer. Typically, House members hold town hall meetings around the July 4 holiday and in late August before the Labor Day holiday.

Borick said that while Carney might face tough questions and comments from his constituents, he’ll get the respect of voters for meeting them face-to-face and listening.

“It’s going to benefit him. It takes off the table the argument that he’s ducking his constituents. It makes him look more open and like more of a candidate willing to be out amongst angry voters,” Borick said.

For years town hall meetings were an innocuous part of the traditionally slow summer season for Congress. Seen as good public relations, the often staged events gave congressmen a chance to be seen and heard and to campaign in what is technically a non-campaign stop.

But last year, amidst a heated health care reform bill that got many voters up in arms, the town hall meetings became nightmares for some members of Congress. In a town hall in Lebanon County, Sen. Arlen Specter faced fuming attendees and a memorable interaction with one man who was almost removed by sheriff deputies before Specter interceded and allowed the man to voice his anger face to face. The image was splashed across newspapers and television stations.

The scenes played out across the country as some were bussed in for town halls for staged protests and a chance to speak out against the reform bill.

Carney held town hall meetings and took the heat, from angry constituents and the blazing sun in some non-air conditioned meeting rooms.

Since 2007, Kanjorski has opted to hold town hall meetings via the telephone. In July of 2008, he held three and then last year he held one telephone town hall meeting Aug. 5, 2009.

In prior years, Kanjorski held multiple town hall meetings. In 2007, he held one in July and four in August. In 2006, he held three in a four day span. In 2005, he held five specifically on Social Security. In 2004, he held four town halls.

Kanjorski’s office has not announced how many telephone town halls will be held, or when they’ll take place, but would confirm that they will be held. A link on the congressman’s Web site allows constituents to sign up to participate in upcoming telephone town halls.

“After last year, the PR value isn’t as good because it could make the members of Congress look uncomfortable and be placed in awkward positions,” Borick said.

Mazzola, with the NRCC, said that “meeting face to face with your representative is an important part of the Democratic process and added that Kanjorski “has no problem finding time to sit down face to face with Wall Street lobbyists.”

King’s College political science professor David Sosar said he completely understands why some congressmen would opt against town hall meetings. He also believes it’s a bad decision.

“I think they would only hurt themselves and create a backlash,” Sosar said. He added that it was up to the voters to raise the issues and demand the town hall.

“If nobody raises the issue, then he escapes,” Sosar said.

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