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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Town hall-style meetings on the decline in NH

Town hall-style meetings have been a tradition in New Hampshire for generations, but they may be disappearing from the state’s political landscape.

The Democratic incumbents of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation have been under fire for the last few weeks for shying away from open public events in favor of more tightly controlled invitation-only appearances. ...

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Town hall-style meetings have been a tradition in New Hampshire for generations, but they may be disappearing from the state’s political landscape.

The Democratic incumbents of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation have been under fire for the last few weeks for shying away from open public events in favor of more tightly controlled invitation-only appearances.

In Jeanne Shaheen’s case, a person wearing a chicken suit has been following her to events, carrying a sign that says she is “too chicken for town halls.”

Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, said town hall-style forums have become on-camera “gotcha” moments, such as with Congresswoman Annie Kuster’s Benghazi gaffe in November.

Town hall meetings have been criticized as more political theater than reasoned debate, but it’s also a direct method for voters to candidly connect with their representatives.

And in a state where voters expect to be able to meet and shake hands with their candidates and elected representatives, such a change may not sit well with voters, which is what Republican candidates hope to capitalize on.

“Instead of holding a town hall, phony @RepSheaPorter sips wine w/ the ‘Beautiful People’ in Napa Valley,” the New Hampshire Republican Party tweeted on Friday after news broke that U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter would join Nancy Pelosi in wine country for a “legislative issues conference.”

“Senator Shaheen, Congresswoman Kuster and Congresswoman Shea-Porter are ignoring the New Hampshire tradition of holding open town hall-style meetings because they are afraid to defend their blind support for President Obama’s failed policies,” New Hampshire GOP spokeswoman Lauren Zelt said.

Meanwhile, Scott Brown’s
camp said Shaheen hasn’t hosted an open town hall meeting since 2012.

In response, Shaheen’s communications director, Harrell Kirstein, detailed a list of her most recent open events, including six office-organized meetings in 2012, a WMUR “Leaders Listen” town hall in June 2013 and six telephone town halls from August 2009-March 2014.

He said Shaheen also hosts many public events around the state.

Kirstein was quick to point out that Brown didn’t hold any town hall meetings during his time as a U.S. senator for Massachusetts.

But it’s true that even though Kuster and Shea-Porter are active in the state, neither has hosted in-person town hall meetings since taking office during the last legislative session.

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte maintains the strongest reputation for hosting town hall meetings, but even she has been lambasted at the events.

Last year, she faced strong criticism from constituents for not supporting gun control legislation. Family members of victims from the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut appeared at her events and challenged her position on gun control.

Ayotte most recently held meetings in early 2014.

Rosie Hilmer, a spokeswoman for Kuster, said the congresswoman has tried to connect with constituents aside from hosting in-person town halls.

“She often holds roundtable discussions and other events,” Hilmer said. “Throughout her time in office, she has held a ‘Congress at Your Company’ and ‘Congress in Your Community’ series. … She visited dozens of companies and community groups.”

Kuster also has a Veterans Resource Fair planned for the end of August in Nashua.

Like Shaheen, Kuster hosts telephone town halls.

“Typically around 5,000 Granite Staters join the telephone town halls to hear from the congresswoman and share their thoughts,” Hilmer said.

And in the modern age of social media, members of Congress are finding new ways to connect with constituents. For example, Kuster is sponsoring a congressional photo contest on Facebook this summer.

The political interest group Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire criticized Kuster for announcing a photo contest instead of hosting a town hall meeting.

But her participation in a photo contest is a fairly common practice, Levesque said.

“I think that many congressmen have and do hold congressional art contests,” said Levesque, who worked with Charlie Bass, R-N.H., in 1994 and remained with him for 12 years. “It’s a good way for students to gain recognition beyond their schools. … There are displays of congressional art in the capital.

“Congressman Bass did it since 1994. … My guess is that this has been going on a long time.”

Levesque said this practice is popular with members of both parties, but it isn’t the same as a town hall meeting.

“It’s a nice way for a member of congress to reach out into the community,” he said. “You can get a lot of publicity with it.”

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402 or tforbes@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Forbes on Twitter (@Telegraph_TinaF).