Rep. Stephen Bloom remembers a time when only two people showed up for one of his town hall meetings.
And while that number stood out as the smallest in his seven years representing the 199th Legislative District in Cumberland County, he also said the attendance at such public forums has never been higher than it is right now.
Bloom said in past years, the largest crowds for his Coffee and Conversation town hall meetings featured 50 to 60 people.
In this new political environment, things have changed.
Bloom met packed venues at a pair of town hall meetings in March. The town hall at Carlisle Borough Hall was standing room only in the council chambers with about 100 people, and Bloom said he had to close off registration for his evening town hall at the Dickinson Township Building due to the number of RSVPs and capacity regulations.
It’s something a few legislators, like Bloom, say they are encouraged to see.
“I’ve been there, too — frustrated at national issues,” he said. “That’s why we have town halls. It allows people to be heard.”
“I think part of my job is to hear what people want,” said Rep. Greg Rothman, who represents the 87th Legislative District covering Hampden and East Pennsboro townships and Camp Hill Borough, as well as a part of Silver Spring Township. “It’s been a great experience for me. I have 64,000 experts in my district on any given subject.”
What Rothman hasn’t faced yet, however, is a town hall after the election of President Donald Trump. Since the presidential election in November, Republicans both in the state and nationally have come under fire from town hall attendees. Boos, shouted questions and printed signs are aplenty at town halls across the country, including those held by local legislators.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-4, heard from quite vocal opposition at this town hall in March in Red Lion, despite the questions being submitted beforehand and read aloud by the York County school district’s superintendent. That contentious town hall included attendees yelling for answers to their questions about Trump’s budget and seeking Perry’s stance on national issues, such as health care.
Perry was the first Pennsylvania Republican in Congress to host a town hall, and was criticized for implementing an identification check for the town hall to ensure attendees were residents of the district.
Rothman said he doesn’t plan on limiting attendance for his planned May 25 town hall in Hampden Township.
“That’s not a statement about what others are doing. I just don’t think there would be that many people,” Rothman said, noting there were about 20 to 30 people at the two previous town halls he held. “I won’t know until I do it.”
Some legislators, however, are already backing away from the notion of in-person town halls altogether.
“If you’re there at a town hall meeting and there’s hundreds of people there yelling at you, it’s going to be a media event,” University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket told the Associated Press in February. “They’re calculating that the bad press they’re going to get from not having a town hall is not going to be as bad as that.”
Jon Anzur, communications director for U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, said in-person town halls are no longer constructive because of the vocal opposition at the meetings.
“We have learned from past experiences that traditional town hall meetings are not the most effective way for Congressman Barletta to talk with his constituents,” Anzur said. “Unfortunately, the disruptive behavior of a few people prevent others from having a productive conversation. Congressman Barletta is always willing to meet with anyone, including those who have opposing viewpoints.”
Barletta temporarily stopped hosting town hall meetings in 2011, citing hecklers who were disruptive and asking questions about lack of jobs.
U.S. Sen. Toomey has likewise been criticized by groups, such as “Tuesdays with Toomey,” which holds a protest against Toomey every Tuesday. Those who oppose him say he doesn’t meet with residents in-person at traditional town halls. His staff, however, say Pennsylvania residents have a chance to speak with him directly through telephone town halls.
Hosting a town hall in person is a far-less-used option for legislators, especially U.S. senators and representatives, than other types of town halls, including telephone town halls.
According to Steve Kelly, spokesman for Toomey, the senator has held 14 in-person town hall meetings, but more notably has hosted nearly 50 tele-town hall meetings over the last three years.
The most recent tele-town hall was on Feb. 16, and Toomey addressed the use of such town halls after he received a question from a Facebook user saying such town halls were a “cop-out” compared to in-person town halls.
“I am in Washington five days a week. ... There is limited opportunity for me to do the job I have signed up to do here in Washington and be back in Pennsylvania at the same time,” Toomey said during the tele town hall, available on SoundCloud. He also noted that calls are not pre-screened and they do come in live over the phone. “I think it is more constructive.”
The tele-town hall attracted thousands of listeners, but it came under fire from Philadelphia magazine due to the tele-town hall being announced on Facebook less than two hours before it was scheduled to start. This came after Philly.com criticized Toomey for never holding a town hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s biggest city. While Toomey has in fact held those 14 in-person town halls, the newspaper said all of them have been in rural counties.
Kelly said there are no town halls planned for Toomey, but when they are scheduled in the future, notices will be sent to the press and posted on social media. Toomey’s in-person town hall meetings are often in the summer months, according to Kelly.
“Sen. Toomey values a constructive dialogue with his constituents,” Kelly said in an emailed statement. “As such, Sen. Toomey will remain engaged with constituents through a variety of mediums, including in-person town halls, tele-town halls and social media forums.”
Anzur said Barletta also takes part in tele-town halls, which he said reach thousands of constituents in the 11th District.
“Constituents can ask their questions and get answers straight from the congressman on these calls,” he said.
Tele-town halls are also popular with state legislators, though they are often not as widely publicized as the in-person town halls.
Both Bloom and Rothman have participated in tele-town halls and noted those calls can include hundreds of constituents on the phone, whereas an in-person town hall has a limit due to the capacity of the venue.
Bloom said tele-town halls have a queue of calls with other callers on muted lines while the representative takes questions. “I never had yelling at the telephone town hall.”
Rothman said his town halls usually involve a call out to constituents, who can opt in or later call in to the tele-town hall, which he said they always hold in the early evening hours. He held a tele-town hall on March 21, which he estimated reached more than a thousand people at one point in the call.
“I answered about 15 to 20 questions over an hour,” he said. “It’s easy for constituents — they don’t have to go anywhere. They’re on the phone or on the computer. We also had a live stream on our website.”
The method of tele-town halls vary, especially depending on which company hosts the town hall. Where Rothman’s office called landlines in his district, state Sen. Richard Alloway’s opioid tele-town hall on Feb. 7 involved residents signing up on a website or through text to get the call a few minutes before the town hall began. Audio streaming of the tele-town hall was also available online, but only those who called in were able to participate and ask questions.
Social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, have likewise become a growing method for legislators to connect with their constituents. Though residents may not receive a response after posting on Facebook or tweeting at their legislator, they are still visible to the legislators and their staff.
As mentioned above, Toomey answered a Facebook post during a tele-town hall.
Perry’s announced his in-person town hall on Facebook with updates about the identification system and the limits on registration. It was also live-streamed on the social media site, with more than a thousand viewers logging on that Saturday morning. Facebook users were also able to post comments on the live stream feed, including one with a Snopes fact check on health care exchange plans and Congressional health plans (Perry was correct in saying members of Congress get plans through the exchange, but he failed to mention those plans are also heavily subsidized by the federal government).
And though reaching a U.S. representative or senator may be more difficult on Facebook — as it would be in-person — local legislators are a little more available.
Bloom has championed social media as an element of being transparent with constituents. He live-tweets his votes on every bill and is generally regular with checking Twitter. For Bloom, it’s one more way to be accessible to voters.
“(A town hall is) one avenue of communication,” he said. “There’s no one perfect thing to do to hear from constituents. Town halls are not the be-all, end-all.”
This also includes going door to door, and Bloom said he knocked on 6,000 doors during the last cycle. He said it gives him a better cross-section of constituents because he knocks on doors of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
And meeting face-to-face with a local legislator isn’t necessarily an odd occurrence. Bloom and Rothman said constituents can schedule an in-person meeting with them to air their concerns, as well as take other routes, such as composing an email or letter. Rothman said that just last week, he had four people stop by his office in one day without a scheduled appointment, but they still had a chance to talk to him.
For Rothman, it’s almost a daily occurrence to be stopped to talk about his job.
“In my district, I’m a half-mile from the capital,” he said. “I live here. I can be seen a lot as a state representative. I don’t think that’s the same for senators and congressmen who may not see people (around here).
“That’s the good part about being a local state representative. There isn’t a single moment I don’t get asked a question,” he said. “It could be in a men’s room at some sporting event. ... I can’t go to the grocery store without being stopped. But I like it. That’s important to hear from constituents.”
And hearing from them could mean a difference on issues. Though Bloom was firm on how he would vote on a number of issues raised at his Carlisle town hall, he said there are some issues he’s glad to receive a bit more education.
“The one thing that always stands out to me is the bill in Pennsylvania that lifted the ban on Sunday hunting,” Bloom said. “I was for that — it made sense. It was to benefit hunters. But farmers came out for a town hall I held.”
He said the farmers told him they and their animals needed a day of rest, and if they couldn’t have Sunday, they wouldn’t allow hunters to hunt on their properties.
“The bill was designed to help hunters, and actually would have the opposite effect,” he said. “It was an issue I was not aware of.”
Whatever form a town hall may take, Rothman said it’s important to simply have one.
“I answered every question I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “I don’t have a preference (of town halls). Any opportunity we have to connect with constituents is a good one.”