Jimmy Dahman

The Town Hall Lives

Air Date: August 23, 2017

Town Hall Project executive director Jimmy Dahman talks about empowering constituents and promoting civic engagement with elected officials.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The town hall is a sacred institution of American democracy, and my guest today seeks to revive the long-standing tradition as he describes it, a grassroots effort that empowers constituents across the country to have face-to-face conversations with their representatives. Its founder and director, Jimmy Dahman, hails from Youngstown, Ohio. He’s a dedicated civic activist, get out the vote organizer, and Millennial citizen. Jimmy, it’s a pleasure to be with you, and given the urgency of our times I want to keep the intro brisk.

DAHMAN: Perfect, sounds good. Excited to be here.

HEFFNER: Because that’s what you’re supposed to be if you’re a questioner at a town hall, direct, brisk, concise, and demand answers.

DAHMAN: That’s correct.

HEFFNER: And you hope that the answers are both logical and concise too, but there are folks who are challenging the merit of the town hall and you are seeking to defend the town hall.

DAHMAN: Absolutely. It’s a staple of our, uh, democracy that’s been around since, since our founding and uh, these representatives go to D.C. to represent these constituents in their states and in their districts, and if they’re going to be voting on behalf of their interests, uh, they should seek their input in open, accessible, um, public events, and you know, if they’re going to uh, support legislation that may be unpopular they should be able to, you know, defend it and they should be able to, you know, talk about why they are deciding on specific votes and why they’re, uh, you know, pushing legislation one way or the other and it gives constituents who may have questions or concerns the opportunity to ask those or, or get those addressed.

HEFFNER: What explains that nearly 200 members have not had town halls this calendar year? What, how would you explain that?

DAHMAN: Uh, to be honest I can’t. Uh, we’ve had, uh, you know, a number of recesses here, uh, almost every month, every other month, and they’re, uh, the term is, is congressional recess but it’s actually congressional work weeks, district work weeks where members are supposed to be doing, uh, you know, events and things in their districts and um, there’s no, no reason why if, if they’re back home for a week they can’t, you know, squeeze in at least one event, uh, where they, uh, invite, invite the public to uh, get feedback and answer questions.

HEFFNER: That in effect is a constituent service just as much as the pothole.

DAHMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

HEFFNER: So you can go to the TownHallProject.com and find Jimmy’s work. Um, you can track upcoming town hall events. I remember in my youth going to a town hall with Congressman Marty Meehan who had voted courageously against a popular decision at the time and to me it’s a glorification of our democracy when it works but you have folks like Speaker Ryan and Senator Rubio who, and the President himself has alluded to this, suggest that they’re not gonna do in-person town halls because they are staged and that political opponents come from outside of the district to heckle them. And Rubio himself said something to this effect, I, I’m not gonna be screamed at, in other words they’re challenging the constructiveness of the town hall. Is that fair?

DAHMAN: I don’t believe so. Um, if you look at these events, um, and, and reporters have been covering these across the country from, you know, Jerry Moran’s in Western Kansas, uh, to you know, districts in Florida and, and, and, and Virginia. I believe there was one in, in Virginia where constituents actually, uh, wrote their zip codes on the, on the name tags to prove that they were constituents of the district to kind of uh, you know, push back on those, on those charges. And uh, if you look and this is something that’s organic that’s happening, I think there’s an interest in, in civic engagement like, like we’ve never seen and this isn’t just happening in, in these big swing districts or purple states, you know, it’s happening in deep red and deep blue districts, swing states, safe seats, um, so I think it’s something that’s, you know, constituents want that opportunity to ask questions and give feedback and it’s their responsibility to push that forward and I think, you know, obviously the clips that are going to make the headlines and, and go viral are going to be some of those more tense conversations. But the vast majority of the, the dialogue at these types of events is constructive. It’s about the issues. It’s about, uh, upcoming legislation and, and yeah, these are emotional issues that Congress is debating that’s going to affect people’s lives in, in a real way and there’s gonna be emotional moments at these events but uh, I don’t think that takes away from uh, you know, that’s not a reason to, to skip altogether these, these important events.

HEFFNER: It’s not as if trains or cars or planes were just invented, so the notion of a coalition of like-minded folks attending a Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan event from outside of the district or state, that was conceivable ten years ago.

DAHMAN: Yeah, and there’s no evidence we have of, of that occurring.

HEFFNER: So in the instances that these representatives are not having town halls, where does your work come in to try to hold them to account and create the environment where there can be accountability?

DAHMAN: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s uh, something very important and, and we’re also exploring additional ways to, to make sure that uh, that we can hold members accountable to these events that are, you know, a critical part of their, their job description. Um, up until we started collecting this in, in January of this year, uh, we started doing it ‘cause we realized it didn’t exist out there and we wanted to be able to, to find these events that are often hard to find or they post them last minute or they try to curate a friendly crowd, uh, by submitting it to a specific email list, so when we found these events we realized that there hadn’t really been past data available that we could find on who was holding these events when, how often, um, where in their states or districts. So what we’ve done is we compiled a, a list on our website. We have our missing members list which I think you touched on earlier which tracks all the members that haven’t held public events in, in 2017 up until this point and, and we encourage constituents, uh, who have gotten creative across the country who, who are, really want these opportunities, uh, there’s these things called Empty Chair Town Halls where they will, uh, you know, over a recess invite their member of Congress to a town hall that they’ll organize on their own. Uh, some of these groups have, you know, rented halls and gotten security and won through, gotten A/V equipment, and, and put all this stuff together so that, uh, it’d be as easy as possible for their member to come, um, and then if they don’t come, a lot of them have, you know, recorded their questions, sent them to the office. They’ve invited local press, um, to highlight, uh, that they are not holding these types of events, um, so that’s, that’s one way. The other ways are kind of the tried and true tactics of calling their offices, showing up at their, at their district offices to talk with staff and, and make those asks and I think it comes down to organizing and, and coming up with creative ways that, you know, get your member of Congress’s attention and, and uh, you know, maybe local press and, and maybe uh, catch some traction on social media.

HEFFNER: You describe here the different kinds of events that a congressperson might convene.

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: A town hall, a forum where members of Congress give legislative updates and answer open questions from constituents, then you described an Empty Chair Town Hall, a citizen-organized town hall held with or without the member. Then we’ve seen this cycle Adopt a District or State Town Hall where it’s a citizen-organized town hall featuring a member of Congress who will travel to another state…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Or another district to represent the interests of the minority or even in some cases a plurality that might feel denied the vote now since 2016. Office hours, an opportunity to meet and ask questions of staff or sometimes a member him or herself which are usually held in district offices, but can be held in D.C. as well. Then there are the ticketed events…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: These are paid events, sometimes they’re unpaid…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: What you were describing is an event where it will be organized 24 hours within the given event and only a specific constituency will be invited, so it has the effect of being a paid event.

DAHMAN: Yeah. So these, these types of events, we, we post them so constituents can obviously know about them. A lot of times they’re either events put on by a specific interest group that you know, invites their membership or you know, a chamber of commerce lunch where there may be, you know, a, a fee to get in or a local group that is inviting their member of Congress so that either constituents can attend if, if they can get tickets or that they can at least know that uh, their representative’s listening to other folks and not, not them.

HEFFNER: Well I’m doing this for our collective benefit. You know it but our viewers deserve to hear and I think this is a civic education that you don’t usually get on television, so let’s continue.

DAHMAN: Awesome.

HEFFNER: We only have a couple tabs left. There are the ticketed events, which we just summarized. Then the last two are D.C. events, when Congress is in session in a member’s office or in a staff member’s office, and one that’s gaining traction as an alternative which can have the effect, tell me if I’m wrong, of a ticketed event is the tele-town hall.

DAHMAN: Yeah. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: What is the tele-town hall?

DAHMAN: Tele-town hall, it’s, it’s uh, something that’s gained steam where they will dial ten thousand members, or constituents in their district, um, you can press one if you have a question. A staff member will talk to you. Oftentimes they screen the questions, so uh, the easier questions that they want to answer get through. Um, everyone else is obviously muted so the member can just take their time and answer a question. There’s really not an opportunity for follow-up. Um, if, if you feel like your question’s been dodged or not answered, um, and, and a lot of, we see a lot of members who, who may be using this as an excuse to come off as accessible and that they’re listening to their constituents while still kind of uh, picking and choosing which questions they answer and what issues they talk about.

HEFFNER: In Youngstown, or you pick the city, what is perceived to be battleground USA, a swing district, suburban America or rural America, you had an opportunity to be a grassroots organizer in this past 2016 campaign for Secretary Clinton’s campaign.

DAHMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Does attendance, do participation sessions, from your interaction with voters…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: People who you might have met who voted for Donald Trump…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Uh, do you think at the end of the day it matters?

DAHMAN: Absolutely. Um, and as I think our, our goal is to promote and, and make more accessible civic engagement. Um, I think, you know, if you look at the beginning of this year with uh, the Women’s March and some of the different, uh, events where folks were, you know, marching across the country, I think people were really looking for ways to get involved locally in their communities, and these types of events I think are, are critical to, to that, and again, we, we post Democratic and Republican events. Uh, we think everyone whether they agree with us or not should attend these events, and we think they’re great opportunities to discuss the issues and you know, have that dialogue and um, I think it’s, it’s, it’s an opportunity for everyone to come together and, and you know, be more engaged in the process and, and be a better citizen and, and hopefully that leads to more people participating in the process.

HEFFNER: I know that you’ve experienced pushback from folks who identify your history or your grassroots organizing as having a partisan affiliation and therefore you’re striving for an accountability of the Republicans that you would not have promised or wanted under a Clinton administration. Now knowing you a bit…

DAHMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: I, I don’t think that’s true.

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But when you look at the history of the healthcare debate in 2009, in 2010, Democrats lost so many elections because of embittered debate around the Affordable Care Act and visuals from those 2009 and 2010 town halls.

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Reflecting on that moment in the current environment, it seems to me that you are demanding the same level of scrutiny, the same consideration of a diligent process…

DAHMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That the Democrats underwent…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And became the victims of in not having the full confidence of the American people.

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You’re trying to get back to a level where there is some integrity in the process, but at the same time you have to face off against this idea that you are the boogeyman…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Uh, looking to catch the next Macaca moment, like George Allen’s…

DAHMAN: Yeah

HEFFNER: 2006 Senate campaign. How do you manage that?

DAHMAN: Yeah. I think that’s a great question. I think we, again, we post all of the events. We, you know, we highlight our, our Democratic missing members as well. We think everyone should hold a town hall, regardless of, of their party, and uh, we make our information accessible to, to anyone. Um, so I think that’s important and, and again, I think the more people we can engage totally to, into these discussions I think is, is valuable, and I think one thing that we look back on, and I know folks have asked how does the, you know, the number of Republicans holding town halls this year compare to the Democrats who held town halls in, in 2009 and all we have is anecdotal evidence of oh, we know Tom Perriello held eighty that year and, and it just, kind of word of mouth. So we think that by like, tracking these events we can, you know, have a better idea. Did Democrats hold way more than Republicans in 2009 than Republicans are holding this year? We don’t really know because we don’t have the data, so.

HEFFNER: There is no comprehensive…

DAHMAN: No.

HEFFNER: Archival record of past town halls.

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Unless you solicit that information from, have you attempted to solicit that information.

DAHMAN: So we’ve done, what, you know, all of our research is done by grassroots volunteers and, and we’ve started to, to look back even over the last, with the August recess coming up which is obviously the, the largest, uh, work period, uh, in district on the calendar, it’s, um, you know, five or six weeks, the Senate’s shortened by, by two weeks as of right now. Um, but we, we’ve started to look back at what different members have held in, in previous years. I think uh, Senator, like Crapo in Idaho has held, held 200 town halls from 2014 to 2016, uh, but has yet to hold one this year and I think he had 29 last August recess, but still has zero scheduled, uh, for this recess, so I think having that information to compare against in the past goes to show if it’s, you know, folks are not holding events because they’re worried about the current political climate or if it’s something they’ve never done or, or kind of what the, the history is there.

HEFFNER: You and I are students of, grew up on the West Wing. I was saying to you, we recently hosted Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the lead writers of the West Wing. There’s this great scene where then-Governor Bartlett faces off against a constituent who saying you, you robbed me of, you, of, of the goods, you know, a farmer in New Hampshire. And the moral of the story in effect is that then-governor Bartlett who becomes President in the series, um, defends an unpopular decision with the dairy farmers and the political consultant says to the conscience of the campaign, why’d you tell him to piss off the dairy farmers?

DAHMAN: Those kinds of moments I think where, you know, there’s gonna be unpopular legislation and, and you know, if you’re gonna vote for something that’s gonna affect people’s lives, you should be able to defend it. You should talk to the people that are gonna be impacted by it and I think we’re seeing a lot of that now with folks who are gonna be affected by this healthcare legislation, and I think you know, if, if you want to make an argument for why you’re supporting an unpopular bill and, and you can defend it, you should you know, you, your constituents have a, have a right to know that.

I think um, just looking back I, I think recently I saw on social media some moments from, from 2009, 2010, where President Obama was, uh, on a, on a tour, uh, doing these town halls answering people’s questions about healthcare reform in Ohio and, and in different places. Um, so I think uh, I think the, the opportunity for those moments exists and I think with the, uh, you know, the increased, uh, presence of social media in our lives and technology, I think you have an opportunity to even take, you know, moments, uh, that uh, you know, show political courage and things like that and, and they can, you know, potentially be viewed by, you know, hundreds of thousands of people if not millions of people instead of just the, uh, you know, fifty people that show up uh, at a town hall in Manchester or, or wherever that was.

HEFFNER: Well it’s a courageous act of citizenship, Jimmy, for you and the members and the questioners, but come back to this question. It has to be disheartening to see the devaluation of the town hall in an age of, of social media when this generation’s growing up on Snapchat, which doesn’t really seem compatible with the town hall. It makes the, the town hall obsolete. How do you, you know, preserve the town hall amid all these digital distractions? Maybe you’re not as disheartened as I am.

DAHMAN: I, I’m, I’m definitely an optimistic person and I think that, and, and what hopefully we’re doing is, is trying to figure out ways to use, use this technology to increase people’s engagement. One thing we, we’ve learned is again, I’d go back to these events can pop up, you know, twelve hours before doors open and because people have signed up for event alerts on our website, we can email 150 people in a district and say your congressman scheduled a town hall for 9 a.m. tomorrow, um, and, and these people can get there when otherwise they would have had no idea that this event was even happening. Um, and when folks are there and you know, we encourage people to organize and, and go together and we know that as organizers the most powerful moments you can create and, and the biggest impact you can have is telling your personal story, and you know, thirty, forty years ago you went there, maybe there was a, a, you know, a local press person there or something like that and you told your story and you know, it was an emotional moment in that room, but if you look at, at what we’ve seen so far, and I think looking at there was the, the 16-year-old in, in Arizona at the Jeff Flake town hall, uh, she was a young woman of color and she was saying that uh, with his privilege how could he vote to defund Planned Parenthood when that’s her only source of medical care? And, and that moment again would have, you know, impacted the 200 people in that room, uh, uh, you know, if this was years ago, but because uh, you know, somebody was able to record it on a cellphone and post it to Facebook and Twitter, it had, you know, hundreds of thousands of views and she was being interviewed on CNN and MSNBC and was able to elevate that story. So while it can prove a distraction and, and you know, I think uh, there’s a lot to be said. I know I have a problem where I can’t get off my Twitter feed sometimes when I need to, but um, the fact that we can use this technology as a tool to, to mobilize people when the appetite is there which I think we’re at a moment where it, there’s an interest that I’ve never seen before, um, I think one of the reasons we started this was so many friends and family who have never been involved in politics, uh, sent me texts and calls over the last couple months and saying what can I do? How can I get involved? I want to do something. Um, and, and hopefully using technology and, and the resources we have available, we can make that more accessible.

HEFFNER: Well that is an inspiring reality and I have to play devil’s advocate to some extent to say simply we fear being desensitized in the partisan culture and the digital strain on our stamina, quite literally. You know, we, we want to be sensitive to the plight of the person in the other shoes, and sometimes that technology can inhibit or has inhibited our ability to be sensitive and really that one-on-one exchange, it’s those viral, it goes viral when it is sensitive to people’s realities…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Across the spectrum, right? That’s the beauty of it.

DAHMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: The, the, the other beauty of it, Jimmy, as we conclude here is just that it can be the beginning of a process for someone who wants to more actively engage their citizenship. The case of the women in New Jersey who came to a town hall or an event like it in subsequent weeks brought cupcakes to the staff or to the congressperson himself, what are your suggestions to those viewing on, say you’re not satisfied with the town hall or you’re not satisfied with the response of the legislator. What do you do next?

DAHMAN: Yeah. I think first is, is you know, you make clear, uh, in these events that you can, I think we’ve seen an impact the last couple weeks with folks calling their, calling their offices. Uh, you can obviously write letters. Um, but showing up to these district offices and, and talking to staff there and just continuing to, to be involved and register and obviously organize. If, if you feel strongly about something and, and you have friends and family who feel the same way it’s, I think on your responsibility to make sure that they know what they can do, uh, to make sure their voice is heard and that’s I think how, how change happens is when, uh, there’s enough political pressure whether it’s at these events or you know, in their phone lines or in letters that they receive, um, it makes it, it makes it difficult and I think it’s, it’s one thing that can kind of cut through the uh, across partisan lines. I think uh, we saw during the Fourth of July parade, uh, in, in, in Maine last month, um, Senator Collins in what she described as one of the more conservative parts of her state, uh, people usually ask her about a million different things at these parades each year, and this was a hundred people thanking for her stance on, on the healthcare legislation. Um, so again if you’re not satisfied, uh, find ways to you know, contact your member, get a hold of their office, make sure that they know how you feel and where you stand. Organize people that feel similarly and again when they hold events and, and, or when they take votes that you agree with, I think it’s important to also use positive reinforcement and, and thank them for holding an event even if you might not agree with them on a lot of things or thank them for, uh, you know, supporting some legislation that, that you agree with them on.

HEFFNER: I saw a senator recently bring out pizzas for supporters of the Affordable Care Act who were waiting in the halls of Congress. It works both ways. There were the, there was the Women’s Coalition baking cupcakes for a representative who they thought that might entice him to listen to their argument.

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Um, these are courteous and socially agreeable tactics that work better than bots and trolls.

DAHMAN: Yeah. I think a little bit of kindness goes, goes a long way and you know, catch more flies with honey than…

HEFFNER: And, and I mean just in the seconds we have left, when you do see the images though of people who might have been at the town halls and then they were harassed or removed from a chamber of Congress or outside the halls of representatives there have been these cases, documented videos of capital police removing…

DAHMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: That is pretty gut-wrenching. How have you encouraged your network to respond?

DAHMAN: Yeah, so we believe that there’s, you know, any, there’s a, obviously a large, uh, array of options to you know, show support for or opposition to, to stuff that you disagree with and you know, over the course of history, civil disobedience has, has proven instrumental in cases of, you know, the civil rights era and, and beyond that. So I think um, you know, there are organizations that have been, have been doing that and sending their members to sit in offices. I think we saw in Colorado and in Arizona, some of these places where you know, uh, folks with disabilities will be impacted by this healthcare legislation staying in for days at a time and uh, it definitely has caught, has caught attention. So um, as far as an organization, we, we, we pushed these events that we find and opportunities for people to go do things, but we just encourage more people to take part in the process in kind of uh, ways that they see fit that, that help uh..

HEFFNER: Well keep recording, transcribing, tweeting them out. You’re doing yeoman’s work. Thank you, Jimmy.

DAHMAN: Thanks so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.