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Whatever the tone, town hall meetings needed

POSTED: November 20, 2009 9:35 a.m.
Years ago, when I was still in Congress, I pulled up one day to address a public meeting in a remote and very rural part of Indiana. The sheriff, a friend of mine, met me outside the small volunteer firehouse where I was to speak. “The Ku Klux Klan is here in full regalia,” he told me. “If you’d like, I’ll keep them out of your meeting.”
For just a second, I’ll confess, I weighed his offer. But I was not in the business of trying to keep constituents out of public gatherings — even if they were in the KKK. No, I told my friend, the Klansmen could come in, as long as they removed their hoods. There’s no place for anonymity in a public meeting, I said.
And so about 25 of them — hoodless — marched down the aisle made by the rickety folding chairs set up in the tiny firehouse and took places in the front. Was this or was this not a Christian nation, they demanded. And what did I think about Jewish influence in Hollywood and on the media? I responded calmly, but their persistent overtones of anti-Semitism wore out the audience’s patience. Eventually they left, and the meeting continued.
Media coverage of stormy public gatherings may give the impression that we’ve entered an especially fraught time for public discourse, but I can tell you that anyone who’s been in public life for a while has seen plenty of fierce town hall meetings. The challenge is not to avoid controversy; it’s to make it productive. Here are some things I’ve learned:
First, you have to recognize that public meetings are crucial for elected officials. They’re where they can best gauge the intensity of public feeling, hear from ordinary citizens, and give people a chance to get to know firsthand their representative.  Sometimes you must square your shoulders before you head into a room where you know tempers are going to flare, but this is democracy at the retail level, and it’s vital.
Often, emotions surface — a particular policy can affect people deeply, and they ought to hold strong views about it. The first rule if you’re the official presiding over the meeting is to be unfailingly polite and let everyone speak. The crowd will always start out sympathizing with friends and neighbors, even vociferous ones, but I’ve noticed that angry or long-winded speakers inevitably wear out their welcome, as the Klan members did. In the end, most people come to meetings like these to listen and discuss, not be harangued.
In some ways, the bigger challenge that a member of Congress faces is to draw out the people who don’t speak easily, but who often have insightful things to say. Every meeting will have speakers seeking the limelight; the trick is to create a space where the more hesitant can feel comfortable saying what’s on their minds, too.
People don’t always express themselves clearly. But it’s important to try and not simply brush someone off because he or she is inarticulate. Because when you do finally understand, you’ll be impressed by the common sense and pragmatism that often underlie people’s concerns, no matter how angry or tongue-tied they appear to be.
Finally, meetings like these are a chance not only to educate the public, but also to be educated by it. Once, at an especially lively meeting over the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s, I found myself — a supporter of the treaties — overwhelmed by the opposition in the room and not quite sure I would emerge from the meeting in one piece. A constituent I’d never met stood up and gave the most cogent argument for ratification I’d ever heard. Not only did the room quiet down, but I took those debating points back to Washington with me.
Over my years in Congress, I conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of town hall meetings. Almost every time I came away with the feeling that this was precisely what I was meant to do — engage my constituents in a small part of the dialogue of democracy. Just as often, these meetings reinforced my confidence in the fairness, decency and judgment of people.
So as we look ahead to the next congressional recess, and no doubt to the next round of heated town meetings, let’s remember that they, too, help ensure that our representative democracy remains vibrant.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House for 34 years.
 

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