Neither of Montana’s U.S. senators have advertised many of his public appearances in recent years as town halls -- until now.
Many people have developed a special interest in town halls since a congressional recess in February, when some Republicans in Congress returned home to hostile crowds demanding to meet face to face at the events.
Although Republican Sen. Steve Daines was Montana’s only U.S. senator being badgered by protesters at that time, neither he nor Democratic Sen. Jon Tester advertised any of his public appearances during the recess as an official town hall.
In response to a request for a list of all town halls held since Daines assumed office on Jan. 3, 2015, the senator’s office provided information on dozens of public appearances where he has met with citizens and taken questions. However, a March 21, 2016, appearance in Colstrip as part of his 10-city Made-in-Montana Energy Tour was the only one of those officially billed as a town hall.
Tester’s staff also pointed to a host of in-person appearances since the beginning of 2015, though it’s unclear whether the term “town hall” was used to advertise any of those held prior to last month’s congressional recess. But Tester has held two face-to-face events officially billed as town halls since then: one on March 4 in Great Falls and one on March 17 in Helena.
Though Tester’s staff wouldn’t say whether they are now using that wording because of the national attention town halls are receiving, a political scientist at Carroll College said that would be a smart move.
“The nomenclature I think is very important right now, the actual language, because it has become an issue of which politicians are and which politicians are not holding town halls,” said Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at the college.
Even if they called their events listening sessions or something else in the past, he said, “It’s politically astute for a politician to call a forum a town hall.”
Tester spokesperson Marnee Banks said the number of calls, emails and letters his office received in January of this year was six times greater than what was received in January 2016.
“These folks are asking for face time with their elected leaders, Jon is delivering that just as he always does,” she wrote in an email.
Tester and all Democrats in Congress are better positioned to hold town halls because the Republicans are on the defensive as a result of their power in Washington, Johnson said.
“It’s the flip of what happened in 2009 and 2010. The Democrats had unified control of Washington, D.C., and Democrats were on the defensive at town halls,” he said. “Now Republicans control the power, so they’re the ones who are really on the hot seat.”
After his Feb. 21 appearances at the Montana Capitol, where he briefly took a few questions amid a crowd of protesters, Daines told Lee Newspapers of Montana that he doubted an in-person Q&A where they could ask follow-up questions would be productive. He said he already understands the concerns of those who are protesting, calling and emailing him, and he criticized organized movements intended to put pressure on Republican leaders by shouting them down in town halls.
“That’s not what Montanans are about. Maybe for some pockets in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, but generally Montanans say, ‘No,’” he said at that time. “We’re about having a civil conversation, a back and forth. I’m not sure that will be the outcome with some of these folks.”
Johnson said a town hall held by Daines or other Republicans could be productive, but it could also be politically damaging right now.
“If you know people are going to be really angry at you, you might not want to have that broadcast so people can watch it across the whole nation if something blows up at a town hall,” he said. “ … There’s no way to look good in such a situation."
Traveling the state
Regardless of what wording was used to describe their events, the offices of both senators defended their record of meeting with their constituents throughout Montana.
The information provided by Daines’ offices shows he has participated in roundtable discussions on a variety of topics in Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Columbia Falls; a 56-county tour where he met with community leaders and constituents; and numerous special observances across the state.
“Since Sen. Daines was elected to the Senate, he has met with Montanans at various locations in all 56 counties of Montana, including coffee shops, small businesses, schools, parks, refineries, at the base of the North Fork, factories, and many other venues,” said Katie Waldman, a spokesperson for Daines. “He enjoys speaking with Montanans, hearing what’s on their minds and answering questions, whether that be in person, on social media or tele-town halls.”
The information from Tester’s office showed he has held listening sessions in Helena, Billings, Flathead, Missoula, Havre, Roundup and Bozeman in recent years. The dozens of other public appearances detailed by his office included roundtables in Helena, Columbia Falls and Missoula, and a variety of other events and observances throughout the state.
Though they may be called by different names, Banks said, any events that are “publicly advertised and open to public comment or Q&A” are considered town halls. She said Tester also regularly meets with Montanans one-on-one, and “he gets back to Montana nearly every weekend and travels extensively throughout the state making himself available to his constituents.”
“Jon’s going to continue holding public events moving forward,” she said. “I think that he’s been very clear that getting out and meeting face-to-face with Montanans is really important, and those face-to-face meetings are incredibly important to getting critical feedback.”
Turning to technology
In addition to their in-person events, both of Montana’s senators have also turned to technology for many of their town hall meetings. Daines has held 14 town halls via phone since he became a senator, while Tester’s staff listed five held by phone and two on Facebook in that time.
While these types of events allow politicians to say they are listening to their constituents, Johnson said, it also lets them avoid the possibility of “something caught on video that could be very embarrassing.”
Up to 200,000 Montanans have been dialed and up to 30,000 households have participated in individual telephone town halls held by Daines recently, his staff said. During his Feb. 16 "tele-Town Hall," Daines said the telephone discussions are more efficient than in-person events and that he reaches people from all Montana counties every two years.
Daines' staff also said he uses Facebook Live to broadcast from a number of events, including Inauguration Day and a surprise ceremony for a retiring undersheriff.
Up to 70,000 Montanans have been dialed and up to 12,000 have participated in individual telephone town halls held by Tester recently, his staff said. While some of the senator’s telephone town halls targeted specific demographics, such as seniors and sportsmen, others were not specific to any particular issue.
“During tele-town halls, Jon dials out to a specific number of Montanans (usually while he is stuck in DC on Senate business) to discuss a wide range of issues,” a statement from his office said. “ … Jon tries to host a tele-town hall between 3-5 times a year, almost always from his office in Washington, D.C.”
Tester’s staff said 900 people participated in more than 80 percent Tester’s latest town hall held on Facebook Live, and more than 27,000 people have watched the video that remained on his page. People can type questions for the senator during these events, and he answers some of them live.
“Jon’s staff recommended he do a Facebook Live to connect with younger Montanans, who generally did not participate in tele-town halls,” his staff wrote. “This Facebook Live was advised as specifically for Montana millennials.”