On February 4, a crowd of hundreds gathered in front of the Tower Theatre in Roseville, California, where the Republican Representative Tom McClintock was hosting a town hall meeting. The line to get inside “snaked around the building,” NPR reported, and once the venue filled up, those who weren’t let in stood outside, holding signs that read “Resist” and “Do Your Job, Represent Us All.” Inside the meeting, the mood was tense: Attendees took McClintock to task for his support of President Donald Trump, asking how he can square his duties to his constituents while backing proposals to roll back the Affordable Care Act and other protections.
In recent years, town hall meetings–a chance for elected officials to interface directly with people in their districts–had faded into something of a nonentity: The New York Times reported in 2013 that “people from both parties say they are noticing a decline in the number of meetings. They also say they are seeing congressional offices go to greater lengths to conceal when and where the meetings take place.” In times of relative political stability, that makes sense. But since the change of administration just weeks ago, constituents across the U.S. are again searching for a way to engage directly with the democratic process.
As it turns out, such opportunities can be hard to find. “There’s no standard format for information about these meetings being posted. Sometimes, they won’t even be posted online; you have to call your congressman to find out when they’ll be hosting an event,” says Nathan Williams in an interview with Co.Exist. Williams, along with a core group of progressive, former political organizers, is one of the founders of Town Hall Project, a volunteer-based initiative working to aggregate all upcoming congressional forums nationwide.
— Nelson Garcia (@9Storytellers) January 14, 2017
Jimmy Dahman, who worked for the Clinton campaign in Ohio, got the idea for the Town Hall Project in the days leading up to the inauguration, when he tuned into CNN and happened to catch a clip of Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, sneaking out the back door of his office hours to avoid confronting the large crowd of Obamacare advocates that had gathered to meet with him. It was a powerful demonstration of how far face-to-face democracy has strayed from being responsive to its constituents, but for Dahman, seeing that crowd of people got him thinking: What would happen if every congressional meeting drew such crowds? Would elected officials actually start listening?
When Dahman floated the idea to Williams of a crowdsourced list of all congressional forums, “our first impulse was to think, surely, this must exist,” Williams says. But it didn’t, so the small group began putting out calls to their networks, asking for volunteers to tackle a few congressional districts each, and update a constantly growing Google Doc with each meeting. So far, more than 100 volunteers have come on board the project. A team of developers are building a website in preparation for what Williams believes will be a long-term, sustained activist effort.
“This is unlike any time I’ve ever seen, where the energy is really coming from the ground up,” Williams says. Perhaps ironically, the most recent precedent for this kind of community-level activism was in 2009, when right-wing Tea Party protesters descended on liberal town halls to object to the Affordable Care Act. Now, however, the momentum is coming from the left. A group of former congressional staffers, in much the same way, developed and circulated the Indivisible guide: a practical Trump-agenda resistance blueprint in which they “reveal the best practices for making Congress listen.” The Town Hall Project is an attempt to provide activists with consistent outlets for their cage-rattling.
The organizers have tapped a rich vein of interest. In Utah, a town hall for Rep. Jason Chaffetz on February 9 saw more than 1,200 people mark “attending” on Facebook, and more than 3,000 were “interested.” (For contrast, those numbers for a town hall that the congressman hosted in August 2016 were 22 and 13, respectively). Meetings have become so fraught for lawmakers–particularly Republicans–that many have taken to canceling them altogether, with nearly 200 cancellations recorded so far. This has prompted angry constituents to hold them anyway, without their representative present.
Though Williams doesn’t attribute the increased attendance at meetings to the Town Hall Project’s work, he does see the organized resource and the increased involvement in local politics working hand-in-hand. “By creating this resource, we are actively encouraging people to get out and go to their town halls,” Williams says. “Go to your member of Congress and tell them what matters to you, whether it be health care or civil liberties. Whatever the issue is, you have more power than you think to influence national politics.”
Find your representative’s next town hall with the Town Hall Project Town Hall Tracker.