Dylan Roche – May 31, 2017
About 300 people made their way inside Woods Memorial Church on the evening of Monday, May 15, for the first District 33 town hall hosted by WISE (Women Indivisible Strong Effective), a newly formed grassroots activism group that, per its mission statement, “provides a platform for diverse women to come together and defend the values and rights that make communities inclusive, fair and safe places.”
The event was a chance for WISE members and the general public to engage directly with legislators. “WISE had been disappointed with the lack of a public forum where constituents could engage the District 33 representatives on the issues that concern us,” said Jessica Gorski, WISE’s director of communications. “The town hall was the first real opportunity for participants to engage their representatives and ask them questions about their voting record and participants to express their position on bills and why.”
In attendance were Senator Ed Reilly and Delegates Sid Saab, Michael Malone and Tony McConkey. The 300 attendees included a mix of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. “Never have I had, in my 15 years as a legislator, the opportunity to talk to so many people at one time,” Reilly told the crowd. “This is a very important part of our democratic process.”
The understanding going into the town hall was that WISE — which identifies as a nonpartisan, issues-based group but tends to lean left in its position on most issues — was dissatisfied with the way District 33 legislators are representing their constituents and wanted to hold legislators accountable for their voting record. “I went into the event expecting these questions and expecting their unhappiness with my answers,” Reilly said. “The whole exercise was for this progressive group to hear from conservative legislators why they voted the way they did, so in that way, it achieved its goal.”
Questions alternated in coming from WISE members and from the general public, and topics focused heavily on education, immigration and the environment as well as a variety of other issues. “I think it’s terrific that such town halls can exist,” Malone reflected afterward. “In some countries in the world, public pushback can result in negative consequences.”
Although WISE attempted to deter disruptive applause or boos by providing each attendee with green and red cards to hold up to express their reaction, the crowd grew more vocal as the night went on. Moderators Kathy Bain and Vicky Bruce were able to keep the question-and-answer exchange on track, but they did have moments of bias in favor of the questioners. When McConkey outwardly denied climate change and the crowd booed, Bain observed to the delegate, “You kind of asked for that one.”
The moderator bias was one point that didn’t sit well with Malone. “[The town hall] was set up right but it was still slanted, and I was disappointed that it was conducted in such a fashion that the moderators showed bias,” he said, suggesting that for future events, WISE might consider having multiple moderators, including one from a conservative group to balance it out.
Overall, WISE members were pleased with the evening. “We felt that the town hall did meet our goal and were pleased with the turnout as well as the tenor and tone of the event,” Gorski said. “We wanted to have a constructive, civil discourse and felt that we accomplished that goal in light of the current political climate.”
Reilly indicated two important lessons that he hoped attendees took with them. “Number one is the bills aren’t as simple as their titles,” he said, explaining that there are always issues and consequences that come along with every bill, even the bills that seem wholly beneficial. “The second part is … the four legislators there took their voting very seriously and had concrete, rational reasons to vote for a bill. It wasn’t a knee-jerk, party response. … It was never a partisan response. It was a thoughtful response.”
WISE plans to hold more town halls in the future, and its members feel this first town hall was a good start. “We have had a few detractors on Facebook, but the vast majority of those who have given feedback were very pleased at how the town hall was run and the opportunity that they had to interact with the four representatives,” Gorski said. Among the ways WISE might improve its format in the future, she said, would be a fact-checker panel.
Reilly hopes that future events will focus on acknowledging the accomplishments legislators made in session rather than issuing criticism. “They chose socially controversial issues where they wanted one vote, and we voted the other way, and they wanted the world to know,” he said. “If I were to do it, I would focus on … what we did for our communities.” He emphasized that 97 percent of the votes on the floor of the House and the Senate are unanimous. “It’s those 3 percent that divide the different groups,” he said.
Even if the crowd left the town hall with differences of opinion, Malone hopes constituents left assured that he and the other officials appreciated the chance to engage. “I hope, if nothing else, they see District 33 representatives are willing to answer questions,” he said, “even if they’re tough questions.”