Town halls? Some Minnesota congressional delegates don't love ‘em

Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation have a love-hate relationship with town hall meetings, where they risk coming face-to-face with angry voters and challenging questions in a potentially embarrassing public setting.

Since the start of the new congressional term in January, four members of Congress from Minnesota have held at least five in-person town halls in their home districts, led by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer with nine.

A fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, hasn’t held any in-person town halls, while Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office was unable to say an exact number of town halls Omar has conducted.

“Letting them see you in a town hall meeting, even heckle you, that’s part of what the job is about,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. He said those who fail to hold town halls “really don’t want to have to deal with the public or answer tough questions.”

In that way, town halls are different than other in-district events that lawmakers hold, such as panel discussions, roundtables and tours.

The eight congressional offices, plus a FOX 9 analysis of press releases and news stories, indicate that Minnesota’s delegation has held 33 town halls this year. Other members of the delegation fell somewhere Emmer and Stauber:

•    U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat; 8
•    U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat; 7
•    U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Republican; 5
•    U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat; 2
•    U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat; 2

Phillips has a third town hall scheduled for Sept. 7, said Sam Anderson, a spokeswoman.

Stauber has done three Q&A sessions with constituents via telephone this year and plans to do an in-person town hall “down the road,” said Kelsey Mix, a spokeswoman.

While most congressional offices were able to quickly produce a list of town halls Friday, it wasn’t as easy to determine the number of such events that Omar, the highest-profile member of the delegation, has held since taking office in January.

A FOX 9 analysis shows Omar held one event labeled a town hall on July 18 in Minneapolis. The discussion included several other panelists on Medicare For All, a proposal Omar supports that would require people to move to a government-run health insurance system.

Video of the event indicates that Omar gave a speech but then played the role of moderator, pointing questions to other panelists. 

Jeremy Slevin, a spokesman, said Omar in 2019 has taken questions from constituents during three other events that Slevin called town halls. Two of the events also featured other speakers, and it’s unclear how long Omar answered questions.

Town halls can feature other speakers as long as the lawmaker is the primary speaker and is available to answer questions for at least 30 minutes, according to Town Hall Project, a group that tracks town hall appearances.

“Rep. Omar believes in putting people at the center of our democracy —it’s why she is in constant contact with her constituents through regular town halls, roundtables, school visits, hospital visits and community conversations,” Slevin said.

Town halls have been an issue in Minnesota for years.

Former Republican U.S. Reps. Eric Paulsen and Jason Lewis were criticized for failing to hold in-person town hall meetings. Both ultimately did in 2018, but lost their re-election bids that year.

In Paulsen’s case, he went about six years without holding a town hall. Lewis held some telephone town halls before doing an in-person event.

“You can, let’s say, virtually communicate with people,” Schultz said. “But at the end of the day, part of what representation is about – at least in this country – is face-to-face confrontation with your constituents, and constituents being able to have that face-to-face time.”