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Civic Engagement Nebraska Politics Please Read

Town Halls 101

It is that time of year again, congress is on break, and if your representatives aren’t 100% tools, they will put themselves at the mercy of a town hall gathering in order to get free campaign media coverage on the taxpayer dime while NOT having to face an opponent in a debate.  Case in point, Fortenberry has a surprise blitz every damn summer

So why attend a town hall?  It depends.   First, a town hall is not a place you should ever expect to get an answer to a stance on a complex policy question (from a republican).  That is something you should call or set up a meeting about (if they are not cowards who do not ever meet with constituents).  Town halls are a front for pretend dialogue.  The goal for the elected official is to get free media coverage that is somewhat positive, while not taking responsibility for anything that has hurt their constituents in the past, and absolutely not promising to do anything in the future.  Because of this, their strategy is to eat up as much time as possible with the most absolutely boring, inane stories regurgitated from things like “Fort Reports.”  Expect super boring powerpoints that contain nothing anyone cares about.  Although Ben Sasse hasn’t held a townhall since 2017 (mostly because he got his ass handed to him) he was a master at eating up time because as a historian his response to every answer was 10 minutes of political “context” beginning with ancient Greece.  

Since I live in Nebraska, my motives for attending town halls have been primarily to hold my representative accountable for their very poor performance.   Shame is a powerful force.   For this reason, town halls are my favorite thing in the whole wide world.  What can I say?  I love heckling horrible people.  Let’s face it, these politicians often live in a bubble where everyone kisses their ass and where they can distance themselves from seeing or hearing about the suffering they have caused.  If you are at a town hall in opposition to the  elected official, there are a few things that you can do to spoil their town hall by a) turning their otherwise positive media coverage into negative, or b) by using the predictable media coverage to amplify your message.

SIGNS

For some odd reason, very few citizens bring signs to town halls.  Yeah, they are not great when everyone is sitting, and if you are in the back or middle, the politician might not see them.  You definitely don’t want to be the asshole in the middle of the crowd blocking someone’s view with a sign.  But a well placed sign can be powerful at a town hall for a couple of reasons. 

In the front row a sign gets media attention AND throws a politician of their game.  As we have learned in Nebraska, signs with mean, true words are enough to strike fear into the heart of our thin-skinned politicians.  A front row sign makes them have to work really hard to not look at you and watching them work that hard while trying to stay composed is pretty satisfying.   

The other reason signs make sense is the closer you are to the speaker, the harder it is for the news media to get a picture or film of the politician WITHOUT your sign in it.  Your arms will be aching but it ruins any chance that the coverage will be positive, and it gives your message a broader audience.   

Signs are also great if you choose to wait in a line to ask a question.  A sign gives you a voice even if you never reach the microphone (which is likely).  But even in the back or on the side, the sign sticks out in a crowd and any media pictures spanning the crowd will include it.  Remember if you have a white sign to make your characters at least an inch thick so people can read it from long distances.  

Q&A

Most town halls include a portion where constituents can answer questions, here are some things to remember: 

1) If they don’t like your question, they will not answer it.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t demand an answer loudly when they don’t.  But do not expect any kind of answer in a town hall setting.

2)  It is important to remember who your audience is.  If you are at a town hall supporting a candidate or seeking more information, then a question will have a different purpose for you.  But if you are at a town hall in opposition to a lawmaker, then the real audience for your question is not the lawmaker but the audience and media at the town hall.  Your goal should be to expose the politicians atrocities, ruffle their feathers (especially if they are a thin-skinned bully who ruffles easily) and to rally your base in the crowd.

If you do want to ask a question, come prepared.  Here is a great example of a question that educated the audience and left Deb Fischer reeling in front of the crowd and media:

 

Angela Sorenson Thomas can be heard in the above video, first educating, then providing context, then asking a simple question.  Not everyone is a practiced pro like her, so if you are not, here are some guidelines on asking good questions: 

Keep your question to 3-4 statements followed by a question.  The question can be rhetorical, or better yet, yes or no.  Remember, you won’t get a real answer to substantive question even if you sincerely want it.

Educate the audience but do it with as few words as possible, people will quickly get bored if your question requires too much background information in order to ask it. 

Remember, town halls can easily become tedious when a few people take up a lot of time and/or are unintelligible at the mic.  Be courteous to others in line by keeping it short, and be brutal to the lawmaker by keeping it sharp and to the point.  Also, speak into the mic!  Be bold.  

Be ready for a dodge from the lawmaker and to CALL THEM OUT.  They will not take responsibility for misdeeds and they will find any excuse to dodge your question, but when they try to dodge it, have a follow up statement ready that hammers home your point and the magnitude of their failure. 

Above all, if you are going to a town hall, have fun.  Town halls are one of the last remaining vestiges of our democracy.  If you are privileged or just lucky enough to not be working during your representative’s mid-day, work-day town hall, then participate!  Clap, boo, cheer, shame; this may be the only time you see your representative all year and now is your chance to be heard.  Participate!

Town halls are my favorite, so just for fun, below is a video of me, with a sign, asking a question, and putting Fartenberry off his game all at the same time almost one year ago.  Enjoy, and give him hell Nebraska!