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With Congress out of session, many in Colorado ask: Where are the town halls?
Congress is off this week, but few Colorado lawmakers are using the time to meet with constituents — a slight that has angered activists across the state.
Three members of Colorado’s nine-member delegation aren’t in the country: U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton — in Cuba, Japan and Germany, respectively.
The rest generally are avoiding the open-air, town hall hearings that are appreciated by residents and protesters but disliked by politicians looking to avoid cringe-worthy moments.
It’s a situation that prompted one group to go stag.
“We feel like we don’t have a choice except to hold one ourselves,” said Katie Farnan, a librarian and anti-Trump activist from Gunbarrel who is planning a town hall meeting Friday in Denver.
Organizers invited U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who declined, but Farnan said it’s important to hold it anyway so that residents can share their ideas and demonstrate that town halls still matter.
“You should be standing in front of your constituents and hear what they have to say as long as it’s civil and respectful,” Farnan said.
Aides to Gardner said the Republican senator has meetings this week with the Colorado Space Coalition, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Colorado Health Care Association — to name a few — but no public forums.
But they defended his outreach efforts and noted his past use of telephone town halls, a tool that has become an increasingly popular substitute on Capitol Hill.
“During the in-state work period, Senator Gardner is holding a number of meetings and roundtable discussions to find solutions to some of the biggest challenges Coloradans face,” said Alex Siciliano, a Gardner spokesman, in a statement.
The latest call for town hall meetings, especially from the left, echoes a similar movement that jump-started the conservative Tea Party in 2009 and set the stage for Republicans winning the U.S. House in 2010.
It also comes at a time of renewed energy from liberal activists, who have hit the phone lines and organized protests in response to the early actions of President Donald Trump, from his cabinet nominees to his executive orders.
It’s the kind of political landscape that can turn a town hall meeting into a high stakes gamble, said Mike Saccone, who handled communications for both Mark Udall, a Democrat and former U.S. Senator, and John Suthers, a Republican and former Attorney General of Colorado.
“They are important because they give you direct contact with your constituents in a live Q-and-A format,” Saccone said. “That’s a powerful image and a powerful piece of evidence that you can point to — whether you are in Congress or the state Capitol — that you are channeling (their) concerns.”
But he said technology has changed the game and added an extra level of pressure.
“Everybody has a camcorder in their pocket due to smart phones, and that has changed the way the public digests and experiences those town halls,” he said. “It’s easy to look dumb if you don’t know how to respond.”
The environment has prompted a range of responses.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, hasn’t planned a town hall for this week.
Nor has U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder — though aides said is preparing to do two in March and four in April. Polis also has scheduled time this week to touch base with callers who didn’t have their questions answered during two telephone town halls he hosted last Tuesday and Thursday.
One lawmaker who plans to meet in person this week with constituents is U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who has an event on Saturday in Thornton.
“On average, we usually get about 15-20 people. However, at our last one … about 120 people showed up and it turned into more of a town hall. We are expecting a similar turnout for this next one,” said Ashley Verville, Perlmutter’s spokeswoman.
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, has a telephone town hall planned for Thursday.
Finding time to meet with constituents will be a lot harder this week for Bennet, DeGette and Tipton, who are traveling overseas on separate congressional trips.
Bennet’s trip to Cuba is drawing the most interest, as it comes on the heels of a recent visit by Gov. John Hickenlooper and amid the controversial thawing of relations between the U.S. and a Cold War adversary.
“In Cuba, he intends to discuss foreign trade, migration, human rights and property claims,” said Laurie Cipriano, a Bennet spokeswoman.
Bennet’s office did not release a day-to-day itinerary of the trip, nor did DeGette or Tipton. Bennet also plans to travel this week to Colombia, though he’s drawing the most fire for the Cuba leg.
“If you travel to Cuba, it’s incumbent on you as a representative of the U.S. to speak about human rights abuses,” said Matt Connelly, a longtime Republican operative. “And I hope Sen. Bennet has the backbone to do that.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman — who this year became a symbol of Republican reluctance to hold town hall meetings in the face of opposition to repealing the Affordable Care Act — is using this week to hold a “listening tour,” where he will meet with selected health care providers and patient advocates, said his spokesman, Daniel Bucheli.
Coffman also plans to hold a telephone town hall next month but likely won’t hold a face-to-face town hall with constituents until April, after, Bucheli said, some votes on repealing and replacing the ACA have likely taken place.
“The congressman would like to come and explain the votes,” Bucheli said.
Coffman has also been dialing up individual constituents to hear their opinions in one-on-one phone calls.
Darien Wilson, a Highlands Ranch mother and a small business owner, said she sent letters and e-mails to Coffman after not being able to meet with him at a January community event, where she went to express concerns about an ACA repeal. Finally, she requested a meeting with him through a form on his website. Last week, he called her back.
Wilson, who said her family had been unable to get health insurance before the ACA because of a pre-existing condition, said Coffman was polite and attentive on the call. But she wasn’t sure she changed his mind — about the health law or about holding more town halls. She said Coffman told her that people only take away soundbites from town hall-style meetings.
“It feels like democracy isn’t happening when you can’t talk to your representative,” Wilson said. “So I appreciated his call because that felt like democracy was lurching along, at least.”
Wilson said Coffman told her he would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement and that, while he is in favoring of getting rid of the law’s mandates, he wants to keep its consumer protections in place — such as the ban on denying coverage based on a pre-existing condition. She said he didn’t get into the fine details about how all that would work together.
In a video posted to Twitter on Friday, Coffman offered much the same message, adding that he was excited to get out of Washington, D.C., for a week.
“Look forward to being back home,” he said in the message. “Hope to see you then.”UPDATE: This story was updated at 9:36 p.m. eastern to include U.S. Rep. Ken Buck’s plans for the week.
Content originally published by the Denver Post on February 20, 2017.