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Town Hall Events Provide Pitfalls at Home

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
"It isn't possible for me to hold a town hall meeting right now. ... If I held a town hall meeting after the filing period, Democrats would all scream" that I was using federal funds to campaign, Rep. Charles Bass said. "Heck, I did it when I ran against Dick Swett in 1994. He held a town meeting in August or September."

"Apparently Congressman Murphy does not want to share his views side by side with me before the voters," Gibson said in a press release then. "Maybe it is because Mr. Murphy has cornered us with his votes for more spending, for higher taxes on small businesses and for authorizing the government takeover of our health care."

Now an incumbent, Gibson has advertised no events billed as "town halls" on his Congressional website in 2012.

It's not that Gibson isn't busy doing events in the district. His Facebook page catalogs his myriad appearances at parades, parties and the like. And Stephanie Valle, his spokeswoman, said Gibson did two "town hall style" question-and-answer sessions in August with groups of farmers in the district.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) was particularly aggressive about using the 2010 town hall dustups to his advantage. For instance, he joined dozens of angry voters who demanded a town hall during then-Rep. Patrick Murphy's office hours at his district office.

At the time, Fitzpatrick attacked Murphy for calling small events "town halls."

"What I think a town hall meeting is, is when you put out the word to a community a week ahead of time, you secure a location and you tell people it's either a general town hall meeting on any issue or a specific town hall meeting on an issue like health care, and you let everybody speak," he said then.

By that standard, Fitzpatrick didn't hold any town halls in August, although he did go to a retirement home and answer questions from about 120 seniors about Rep. Paul Ryan's budget after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney added the Wisconsin lawmaker to the Republican ticket.

Fitzpatrick's chief of staff, Athan Koutsiouroumbas, said the Pennsylvania Republican has been contending with aggressive liberal activists who have used profanity and aggressive tones in attempts to provoke Fitzpatrick.

At a recent fair, a man with a video camera behaved belligerently as Fitzpatrick was eating ice cream with his children. Eileen Silver, a local official, was bruised on the arm after trying to place herself between the man and Fitzpatrick, according to a police report of the complaint she filed.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who has been attacked by Democrats over his fundraising and other ethics issues, has pretty much stopped doing town hall events. Spokeswoman Carol Danko said he has found voters "prefer" smaller events such as block parties and tele-town halls to interact with their Congressman.

The tele-town hall, in which thousands of voters participate in a kind of large-scale conference call with officials, has become popular among lawmakers. All of the Representatives contacted for this story mentioned their use of these events to communicate with constituents.

The appeal is the potential to reach more voters at less cost than is possible by holding an in-person town hall.

But in the 2010 cycle, the use of virtual town halls was met with accusations from tea party activists that the events were a cop-out meant to insulate lawmakers from voters.

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