Town halls? Lawmakers try to avoid angry voter run-ins

WASHINGTON — Congressional town hall meetings can be a contact sport, and that has prompted San Joaquin Valley lawmakers to try different strategies for meeting with constituents.

All five congressmen who represent the area between Stockton and Visalia are conversing with voters throughout the August recess.

Not everyone, though, is holding the kind of wide-open health care dialogue that has grown unruly elsewhere.

"It's just a hot issue," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said Thursday.

Some lawmakers are holding traditional town halls. Some are meeting with select groups. Some, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, are emphasizing targeted meetings and telephone conference calls.

"He is making himself accessible to his constituents in many large group settings, which will be much more productive than the town halls, which, these days, only serve as venues for those who only wish to disrupt a serious discussion of the issues," said Cardoza's press secretary, Mike Jensen.

Conference calls, often dubbed telephone town halls by congressional offices, have become one alternative.

Wednesday night, Reps George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, convened telephone town halls.

McNerney drew about 5,000 participants from a congressional district that stretches from Manteca to Morgan Hill, according to spokeswoman Sarah Hersh.

Radanovich's policy counsel, Tricia Geringer, said that roughly 3,500 residents of Modesto, Turlock, Madera and Fresno participated in at least part of Radanovich's hourlong program.

"People like it," Geringer said. "It's a good opportunity to be involved."

Jensen said Cardoza conducted similar telephone sessions in June and July, drawing 4,280 participants in the first program and 5,231 in the second.

More control

Teleconferences enable lawmakers to reach large audiences and exert maximum control. There are no insulting placards or cameras to interfere with civility. And questions can be screened.

On Wednesday, Geringer said, Radanovich fielded several dozen.

By contrast, in-person public sessions can leave lawmakers more vulnerable. Some raucous sessions have become YouTube and cable television sensations.

The possibility of a public flare-up is drawing more media attention. Three television camera crews showed up Thursday for a Fresno event at which Nunes spoke.

Radanovich wants to schedule a town hall meeting by fall, Geringer said.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, does not have any planned.

In recent days, some Democrats have reconsidered their town hall decisions.

Notably, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., apologized late Wednesday for referring to protesters' "Brown Shirt" tactics — the term refers to Hitler's stormtroopers — and in a turnaround declared he would hold five programs.

"My hope and trust is that we can have the kinds of informative exchanges that I have valued for so long and that reveal the very best of public discourse," Baird said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.