According to his critics, it’s been at least seven years since Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) has held a proper town hall event. Instead, the Republican congressman hosts “tele-town halls” in which as many as 50,000 households can listen in as Paulsen responds to constituents’ queries.
Paulsen says the tele-town halls are “just a great way to use technology to make sure we’re reaching out to folks.” and allows him to “more effectively [represent] you, by hearing directly from you as well.”
But tele-town halls also enable Paulsen to evade confrontational encounters with protesters that often provide opportunities for embarrassing viral video. These events are often scheduled on short notice and allow Paulsen’s staff to screen questions ahead of time. The possibility of technical difficulties also remains an inherent problem. One constituent recently reported that during a tele-town hall call, she was given the opportunity to ask a question. But after waiting on the line for 45 minutes, she was simply disconnected.
Paulsen isn’t the only Republican eschewing traditional town halls for a virtual counterpart. Other Republican lawmakers have employed phone calls or Facebook live to engage in virtual question and answer sessions. Congressional Democrats, by contrast, have been far more willing to hold public meetings. During the August recess last year, 40 percent of congressional Democrats held town halls, but only 18 percent of Republicans did.
Paulsen is poised and practiced in tele-town halls. In last week’s call, for instance, he was eager to talk about his positions and policies. But the 3rd Congressional District is growing increasingly frustrated with his avoidance of real constituent interaction. The Star Tribune recently reported that “Protesters have picketed on bridges with lighted ‘Town Hall Now’ signs and staged a town hall of their own with hundreds of people in the audience but no congressman at the podium.”
Even local Republicans have grown wary of Paulsen’s antics. Karl Bunday of Minnetonka, a longtime Republican who voted for Paulsen in every election until 2016, said he’d “really like to have a meeting with Rep. Paulsen — we’re talking an in-person town hall. An actual town hall.”
Adam Jennings, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Paulsen in this year’s midterm election, has promised to hold at least four town halls per year if elected. “Essentially Erik gets to sit back, choose what he wants to answer, and if he’s not straightforward or if he wants to dance around the question, there’s no way to hold him into account,” Jennings said. “I think in large part, Erik Paulsen is a coward. He is scared to face his constituents.”