This Is What Democracy Looks Like For Jason Chaffetz
Congressman Jason Chaffetz held a town hall last week in his district. It was a chance for him to engage with voters and help calm some of the fear that has been swirling since the election. Town Halls are not large events and usually draw around 50 people or so. Such was not the case at this Town Hall in Utah’s 3rd District where almost 1,000 residents waited inside to talk to their representative, with another 1,000 more outside that were not allowed in.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut), is perhaps best known outside of Utah for being the Chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. He has been involved in numerous and exhaustive investigations of the IRS for targeting of conservative political groups and Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State involving Benghazi. Recently, Chaffetz has been remarkably silent on the President’s conflicts of interest saying only that the president is exempt from conflicts of interest laws and to investigate him would be an overreach and misuse of Congressional power. It was into this swirling maelstrom of emotions and politics that Jason Chaffetz walked that night.
A healthy democracy thrives on public venues where engaged voters can interact with their representatives. Town Halls are perhaps the main venue for these conversations and a cornerstone of democratic governance. Rather than taking to the streets or launching flaming Facebook tirades, Chaffetz’s constituents showed up at his town hall to talk, and yes, listen to him. “I wanted to hear from the Congressman, ask him my questions, and hear his answers as a lifelong Utah resident.” Andrew Graft told me, when asked about why he attended the Town Hall. “Know this, I was not paid. I am not a radical. I just have concerns that I want someone to address. And this town hall meeting was the first (and so far only) such opportunity to hear from a Congressional official from around our area.”
Many of the attendees that night arrived hoping to voice concerns with their elected representative. They were thankful that Chaffetz had taken the time and courage to host a town hall in the current political climate. As Kat Martinez, another attendee, writes about that night:
I started the evening with a feeling of gratitude that Chaffetz had agreed to a town hall at all, and a touch of admiration for him as he knew he was walking into a hostile crowd and that takes courage…I wanted to believe if we showed some decorum Chaffetz would really listen to us. The media would know we aren’t paid protesters, but concerned constituents. I wanted to believe we could ask heartfelt, scientifically backed questions and we would be heard.
For many, this Town Hall was an exercise is democracy that went beyond merely voting. Jason Chaffetz represents the people of Utah’s 3rd district to the rest of the U.S. and the world. In Utah they are aware that winning a campaign is not the end of the relationship between an elected official and their constituents, it is only the beginning. While those present may not have voted for Rep. Chaffetz he sill represents them, a relationship that goes both ways.
Unfortunately there were many missteps that night beginning with the fact there were no microphones provided for those asking questions. This topic of microphones comes up again and again in conversations had with those present. Another attendee, Lydia Joseph, shared about her experience of the night.
“Not being able to hear the questions being asked was particularly frustrating for those of us who were sitting in the back of the auditorium. I could feel the mood going downhill as we strained to hear what the question or comment was.”
The lack of microphones may seem like a small item, but for some it exemplifies all the problems with the town hall that night.
“By not using microphones, Chaffetz was able to dictate the narrative of the questioning, and repeat parts of questions to the audience and ignore others,”
one attendee, Arika Schockmel, pointedly remarked. The person in the room who had all the political power, who had his elected office to amplify his voice, was literally also the only one with a microphone. This setup occasioned much of the rowdiness that has been a topic of criticism for Republican’s about the town hall. Here was a learning opportunity going forward to better structure what will be increasingly packed town halls across the country. Both sides had the opportunity to move forward in good faith and build a better relationship, an opportunity that was quickly rejected.
Rep. Chaffetz seized upon this chaos and confusion to become involved in a spin war with his constituents claiming that those present at the Town Hall were paid “pro”testers and radicals from out of state. Is this a productive response to voters who show up to town halls wanting to engage with their representatives? According to Chaffetz the pledge of allegiance that he asked the crowd to participate in was booed; a claim countered by video footage of the town hall. Chaffetz went on to say concerning his neighbors who came to see him speak, “That’s who these people are. We’re better than that. That’s not what the average Utahn is like.” Chaffetz’s constituents have not sat passively by, they continue to press their local newspaper to run more balanced coverage and spread video of the event so people can see for themselves what happened.
The Republican political response in Utah to Chaffetz’s confrontational town hall has been a rash of cancellations and tightening restrictions on when voters can meet their representative in person. Andrew Graft, a Utah resident, describes the changes his representative has instituted:
The staff for my representative, Mia Love, said yesterday that due to the contentious atmosphere at the Chaffetz session, she will only be meeting with constituents 4–6 at a time behind closed doors and with no media present. Considering we have approximately 600,000 individuals living in our district, that decision seems inefficient at best — and cowardly at worst.
Such a response has not deterred Utahns one bit. They continue to push their local and federal representative to hold town halls where voters can discuss issues publicly with their representatives. Currently in the works is the #TownHallforAll scheduled for Friday February 24th. Describing the event, organizers stated:
When we asked our other Members of Congress for town halls, they met our requests with silence. What else is there to do but have our own town hall?Invitations will be sent to every member of the Utah congressional delegation and we certainly hope they attend. If not, well, we’ll celebrate our community, our voices, and our futures together.