How Not to Hold a Town Hall, With Special Guest Knute Buehler

How Not to Hold a Town Hall, With Special Guest Knute Buehler

town hall (n):

1. A building used for the administration of local government.

2. An event at which a politician or public official answers questions from members of the public.

This past Friday evening, at 5pm in Conference Room CD at St. Charles Medical Center, state representative Knute Buehler held a town hall. While I had, admittedly, received word of Buehler’s town hall only an hour before it took place, I did some quick research and attended. Not having prepared anything myself, the goal for the evening was fairly simple: listen to the concerns of fellow constituents, as well as Buehler’s responses to them.

I’m no expert by any means, on town halls or politics or politicians, but everyone has to start somewhere and, more importantly, I can spot someone trying to wave jazz hands in my face as a diversion tactic from a mile a away. What that means is I’m glad for your pro-choice stance, Knute, and I’m sure you’re as great a guy as I’ve been told by folks whose hips you’ve replaced, but I call bullshit on your town hall. As did pretty much everyone else in that Friday night cocktail-hour/dinner-hour/family-hour/chill-the-fuck-out-hour tiny-ass room. I know you think so, too; you were as neck-red and stuttering as the room was vocal.

I Don’t Know Shit About Politics, But…

I’m not seasoned enough to know. But maybe that’s what town halls are? Masturbatory PR sessions marketed as platforms for constituents to be heard, listened to, answered. I’ll need to attend a few more, but after Senator Ron Wyden’s February town hall in Sisters (held in a huge auditorium at a reasonable evening hour on a reasonable day), I can’t yet say whether or not the aforementioned conclusion is entirely true. Of course Wyden’s town hall was as much a demonstration in PR as anyone else’s, but he didn’t seem to do much sidestepping, he didn’t eat up the public’s time with a lengthy monologue and slideshow presentation, and he certainly demonstrated tact.

Sure there’s the obvious experience at hand. Buehler was elected to his second term in 2016. Wyden, on the other hand, has been holding town hall meetings in each of Oregon’s 36 counties every year since his 1996 election into the senate. So far, this equals more than 700 town hall meetings, and counting. In addition to experience, there’s also the difference between a U.S. senator’s duties and those of a state representative. But, in theory, shouldn’t all town halls be created equally—or at least be equally rooted in definition #2 of town hall noted at the opener of this blog post. 

Knute’s Town Hall: Top 6 Reasons Why I Was Not Impressed

  • This one has to come first, because who knows how far down the blog post you’ll read and this one deserves the attention. When a Latina constituent is given the mic at your town hall and voices her very legitimate concerns and fears about the war on immigrants currently underway—and he or she is visibly and audibly nervous and shaken and fucking scared—and then looks you in the eye and asks if you will publicly denounce it all, the deportations and the ICE raids and the stereotyping of immigrants as rapists and criminals and subhumans, you cannot, I repeat CANNOT entirely avoid this Latina’s inquiry/plea and then proceed to tell her how you “get it” because you, too, have ancestors who went through a lot when they immigrated to the U.S. No. No no no no NO. AS PRIVILEGED WHITE AMERICANS WE CANNOT RELATE THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE OF OUR WHITE EUROPEAN ANCESTORS TO ANY KIND OF LATIN@ IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE. Period. Knute, this is absurd and it is also not OK and you need to know this for future town halls, and generally as a human being. We all do.

  • Told you that one was important. Less important but still reason enough to not be impressed: holding town hall at 5pm on a Friday in a tiny room in an obscure wing of a hospital (I get it, you previously served on the board, yada-yada). All this translated to was: let’s pick a time, a place, and a space inside that place that’s inconvenient as fuck; that way less people will be likely to attend. Town hall as democratic process or sweeping grand gesture? Well, when your constituents show up during Friday happy hour, we get it before we even get there. We read you loud and clear.
  • The ol’ switcheroo. A town hall that’s actually a 50-minute monologue that’s actually a PR session capped with a community member’s slideshow (on a very important but mostly irrelevant as it relates to town hall topic; i.e. one that oddly makes you “feel good about guns” because the guns in this story shoot the animals that become the free food source for certain homeless populations in Central Oregon) not only leaves constituents hardly any time to present concerns, it also irritates us.
  • Diversion tactics like jazz hands, like everywhere. That is, shifty avoidance of answering, in depth or directly or at all, repeatedly posed questions about health care, Measure 97 and corporate taxes, immigration, the Bend-LaPine School District, gun control, equal pay for equal work, and other complex topics, works best only when employed sparingly. Kind of like, um, non-lexical utterances or speech disfluencies, the, uhhh, avoidances are sometimes necessary but, like, become intolerable when overused.
  • I don’t think “It was a very poorly written bill” can or should be the only reason behind every nay vote you’ve ever given. This not only passes the buck, but also starts to feel less and less credible the more it’s used as the sole reason for not voting in favor of something. (Note: as illustrated in the previous bullet point, the act of repetition can either strengthen or weaken a cause.).
  • Supporting the prevention of suicide is great. So is addressing the need to question gun purchasers at point of sale. Concurrently voting nay (March 2016) to extending the background check waiting period for gun sales to 10 days, and being endorsed by the NRA… not so great. I know, I know, it was a very poorly written bill. Got it.   

But hey, that’s politics, right? The semi-organized embodiment of contradiction. It’s also human beings, too. So yeah, thank you for being a pro-choicer, Knute, and for championing greater and easier access to birth control across Oregon, and for not really being into coal as a viable energy resource. Even though your town hall felt more or less like an insult on our intelligence—I suppose that’s how these things go from time to time—thank you, Knute, for not avoiding your constituents altogether.

On that note, Congressman Greg Walden will be holding his first Deschutes County Town Hall in a long minute. Where’s Walden? You’ll find him in the main gym at Mountain View High School, this Thursday, April 13, at 5pm. Stop by, show up, be prepared, and be respectful. You know that shit gon’ be cray.

See you, uh, there. And like bye.

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