In-Person Town Halls are Latest Political Battleground

In-Person Town Halls are Latest Political Battleground
Rep. Barbara Comstock speaks at a Holocaust Remembrance event Jan. 29 in Sterling. The second-term congresswoman has come under pressure from activist groups that say she is ignoring their concerns.

As partisan differences become a growing focus of citizens and the media, even the manner in which politicians interact with constituents has become contentious.

On Feb. 24, citizen activist group Indivisible VA District 10 will host a town hall forum for its district’s representative in Congress, Barbara Comstock (R). Citing a longstanding prior commitment, Comstock said through her staff that she will not be able to attend. This has further aggravated a group that has continually pressured her for, among other things, an in-person appearance.

“This isn’t going to get any better. We’re getting increasingly frustrated because we’re not getting a response,” said Kristen Swanson, a leader of one Indivisible’s affiliated groups, Indivisible Lovettsville 20180.

This Indivisible group is part of the larger Indivisible movement, a nationwide organization that has partnered with liberal policy groups like MoveOn.org and calls for resisting president Donald Trump’s political agenda. Area Indivisible groups have expressed their anger with not only Comstock and her positions on healthcare and immigration, but also with how she has made herself available to the public.

Indivisible leaders have said their representative is purposefully avoiding her constituents. Along with visits to her field offices and public rallies, the group has contacted her office with phone calls and letters every day for nearly two months, but said they haven’t had a formal in-person meeting.

Republicans in Congress across the country have faced pressures from constituents angered after both the election of Trump and subsequent Republican-led efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The 10th District, which stretches from western Fairfax County to the West Virginia border and includes all of Loudoun County, has elected Republicans to the House of Representatives 19 consecutive times.

Indivisible organizers say the groundswell of support has removed fears local progressives had in expressing themselves for the first time in decades, putting Comstock in a position she was unprepared for.

Comstock has not hidden herself from the public, and promotes her frantic travel schedule across the 10th District on social media and through her presence at ribbon cuttings, business celebrations and community events. Groups like Indivisible have criticized Comstock for living and representing a district that easily allows her to travel to and from Capitol Hill and not making meaningful in-person interactions and instead focusing on what they consider as merely photo ops.

“I’ve seen a lack of leadership from Rep. Comstock because she’s not willing to engage with the masses that are communicating with her on a daily basis,” said Kristine Condie of Indivisible Lovettsville 20180. “She’s picking and choosing with whom she wants to speak, and she’s looking very beautiful in front of a flag store or a rotary club or her congregation, and that’s all well and good. I applaud that, but there’s another dynamic to her constituents that she needs to be actively engaged in.”

Comstock and her staff have said the second-term congresswoman is readily available to hear from and interact with constituents. In addition to her interaction with individuals at events in the community, they point to two recent teleconference town halls as effective ways to hear from the community. They also point to the proliferation of teleconference town halls by other members of congress, including Virginia’s 11th District Rep. Gerry Connolly (D).

Republicans also say those events, among others, reach tens of thousands, whereas the Indivisible town hall is less impactful because it has capped attendance at 150.

Comstock and her staff have also been critical of the event’s structure itself. The event will be moderated by writer Todd Kilman, who recently hosted a five-part series of post-election analysis events called “WTF Now!?”. Indivisible has portrayed Kilman as an award-winning author and culture critic. Comstock’s camp has said he is merely a Maryland-based food critic.

“.. I think we have a lot of people in Virginia that I can work with and talk to, whether it’s hospitals or community health centers, or different places we’ve talked with,” Comstock said at her Feb. 21 teleconference town hall. “I think you’ll probably say if, you sit down and visit with some of the community center folks that we can put you in touch with, it would probably be more helpful than talking with a food critic from Maryland who’s going to be leading up the town hall on (Feb. 24).”

In addition to supporting Comstock’s choice of teleconference town halls, conservative groups like the Republican Party of Virginia (RPV) have called efforts like Indivisible’s a means to gain publicity by berating members of congress. They point to hostile exchanges with Indivisible groups and other members of Congress at similar events across the country.

“If anything, the Democratic cry for town halls is more about drama than electoral discontent,” the RPV said in a statement released Feb. 23. “In Northern Virginia, the same groups think they’ve found a silver bullet to attack Rep. Comstock, and are demanding their own struggle sessions to make sure they can tell the TV cameras just what they think of her.”

Ahead of its town hall, Indivisible says that is not their intention.

“We don’t want to ambush her, we don’t want to be angry,” Swanson said. “We want civil discourse. We want to meet with her. That’s all there is to it.”