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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The senator and the GOP chicken

Telegraph Editorial

The image of a person dressed in a chicken costume following Sen. Jeanne Shaheen around the state to highlight her failure to hold town hall-style meetings in the state is a powerful one.

The tradition of holding meetings where people can show up, meet their representative and ask questions directly is a strong one in New Hampshire, and it harkens back to the days when we were a state of fewer than a million residents and face-to-face access to elected officials was a given. ...

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The image of a person dressed in a chicken costume following Sen. Jeanne Shaheen around the state to highlight her failure to hold town hall-style meetings in the state is a powerful one.

The tradition of holding meetings where people can show up, meet their representative and ask questions directly is a strong one in New Hampshire, and it harkens back to the days when we were a state of fewer than a million residents and face-to-face access to elected officials was a given.

The depth of the tradition can be inferred from the fact that U.S. Sen. Styles Bridges was attending a town-hall meeting in the state on Dec. 7, 1941, when he got word that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Republicans say Shaheen – coming to the end of her first term in the U.S. Senate after serving six years as governor – hasn’t held a town hall-type meeting since 2012. They make the point in hopes that people will conclude she is out of touch with voters.

The Shaheen camp counters that the senator has held several round-table type discussions and frequently makes public appearances across the state. Shaheen’s aides also point out that she has held several “telephone town halls.”

Neither Reps. Ann McLane Kuster nor Carol Shea-Porter have held town-hall gatherings since the last election, and their operatives say much the same thing as Shaheen’s – that they are accessible and responsive to the electorate.

We think there is value to town-hall type meetings, and note that Sen. Kelly Ayotte has continued to hold them periodically.

We would like to see our representatives hold more of them. Candidates should have to look voters in the eye and explain their positions. There is also something to be said for requiring a candidate to hear from people directly, including some who might not ordinarily be able to break through the cadre of handlers whose job it is to run interference.

As for the so-called “telephone” town-hall meetings, they aren’t town hall meetings at all. If anything, they are the coward’s way out because they don’t require close-quarters interaction or allow voters to read the non-verbal cues, which often provide far more information than the well-rehearsed non-answers that come out of a politician’s mouth.

The so-called “roundtables” aren’t much better, limited as they usually are to hand-picked participants and narrowly focused issues.

If the state’s tradition of town-hall meetings is on its deathbed, then let the obituary note that win-at-all-costs partisanship is what killed it.

Rather than providing a forum where well-meaning constituents can show up and ask honest questions of representatives willing to field unscreened queries, the tradition has devolved into an opportunity for political sabotage by those professional Republicans and Democrats who get paid to put party before country.

Each side lies in wait for the other’s candidates, hoping to record a “gotcha” moment like Scott Brown forgetting what state he’s running in or Kuster begging off on a question about Benghazi.

As a result, those who hold office hide behind staffers and only attend public events that are carefully calculated to either make them look good or, if that’s too much to ask, at least limit their chances of looking bad.

Does Sen. Shaheen fall into that category? Is she really “chicken” to hold town-hall style meetings, as Republicans would have voters believe?

That’s true to some extent, though she hasn’t forsaken the state by any stretch of the imagination.

Rather, her failure to hold such gatherings is also a concession to the reality of a poisoned political atmosphere for which her own party is exactly 50 percent responsible.

The chicken itself – and the very fact that it’s part of the GOP arsenal – is a byproduct of that atmosphere.

If Republicans weren’t using the bird to make their point about Shaheen’s lack of town-hall meetings, it’s a safe bet they’d be trotting it out there for some other reason.