Government & Politics

Members of Congress from Kansas, Missouri talk to constituents — but not at town halls

Indivisible KC held a Kansas Constituent Health Care Town Hall on Wednesday at Overland Park Christian Church. The organization said it invited Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts and Reps. Lynn Jenkins and Kevin Yoder, but all four declined the invitation. On the panel were (far left) Sean Gatewood, co-administrator of KanCare Advocates Network, and Sheldon Weisgrau, executive director of Health Reform Resource Project.
Indivisible KC held a Kansas Constituent Health Care Town Hall on Wednesday at Overland Park Christian Church. The organization said it invited Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts and Reps. Lynn Jenkins and Kevin Yoder, but all four declined the invitation. On the panel were (far left) Sean Gatewood, co-administrator of KanCare Advocates Network, and Sheldon Weisgrau, executive director of Health Reform Resource Project. Special to the Star

Rep. Kevin Yoder hosted a town hall Thursday evening, but it wasn’t at a church or community center. It was on the telephone.

From Florida to Utah, GOP lawmakers have faced angry crowds at town halls in the weeks following President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Videos of protesters chanting at members of Congress have gone viral, while other lawmakers have decided to skip the town halls during this week’s congressional break. That has drawn criticism from some constituents who say lawmakers dodging tough questions.

Yoder, who was back in Kansas this week, said he hosts these telephone town halls throughout the year and that the decision to host a telephone town hall rather than in-person event was not motivated by a fear of protesters.

“We reach a lot more people. I did a telephone town hall two weeks ago and had 7,000 people on the call. It’s much more convenient for people that don’t have the time, who are working or are raising their families, and don’t have the time to go stand in a line and go to a big room and have to give up their evening like that,” the Johnson County Republican said during an interview at an Overland Park diner. “We’ve found we can reach more people.”

But some complained on social media Thursday night about the quality of the audio and the inability to meet with Yoder in person.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, says that he is able to reach more people through a telephone town hall than in-person event. Protests have taken place nationwide at congressional members' town hall events.

Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler, whose district covers parts of western and central Missouri, didn’t schedule any town hall events for the break and her office specifically cited the protest scenes when asked for the reason.

“She always encourages and welcomes respectful dialogue and understands we will not always agree on the issues, but as we have witnessed from numerous media reports, the town hall events others have held have been disrupted and taken over and turned into spectacles for the media,” said Kyle Buckles, Hartzler’s spokesman, in an email.

“The Congresswoman doesn’t think that is fair to the constituents who aren’t then able to voice their concerns over the fray, nor is it productive for anyone involved. Our office receives thousands of calls, emails, and letters on a number of issues each month,” he continued. “These are more productive channels to get your voice heard and I assure you she hears them and is listening to them.”

Buckles said that Hartzler would “be reaching out to thousands of her constituents via tele-town halls in the coming months.”

Democrats have also faced big crowds and protests at some of their events. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, saw disruptions at a town hall he hosted earlier this month in the wake of Trump’s travel ban.

Yoder said that he spent the week reaching out to constituents in more intimate groups. On Tuesday, he was at a coffee shop meeting with people who rely on the Affordable Care Act for health insurance. The Republican Congress is weighing repealing the law, something Yoder supports.

“We had a roundtable, a great meeting, with 10 supporters of the Affordable Care Act. We sat down and I spent an hour just listening. It was such a productive dialogue,” Yoder said.

Progressive groups have hosted their own town halls this week in Johnson County with empty seats for Yoder and fellow Republicans, Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts.

Yoder pushed back on the notion that lawmakers should be compelled to attend such events.

“I’ve done dozens and dozens and dozens of in-person town hall meetings and we’ll do some again, but just because someone demands on one morning or one afternoon with a specific group and specific agenda that they demand we attend a specific event that doesn’t mean we have to,” Yoder said.

Moran’s absence did not prevent a group of activists in Johnson County from scheduling a town hall for him Thursday night at the Grace United Methodist Church in Olathe.

“Our senators are basically afraid of us. And they will not meet with us,” said Al Frisby, a retired school teacher who chairs the Johnson County chapter of MoveOn.org, the progressive group that had organized the alternative town hall.

Frisby’s group has been holding protests outside Moran’s Johnson County office every Tuesday. They’ve been doing the same outside the offices of Roberts and Yoder.

“They need to listen to their constituents and do what we want instead of what the GOP wants,” Frisby said.

Frisby’s group planned to discuss a broad range of topics in the town hall: Islamophobia, the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s Russian ties, Planned Parenthood, immigration and a host of other issues.

Official congressional trips prevented Moran and other lawmakers from scheduling any town halls during the break.

Moran and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, both Republicans, went to Europe as part of a congressional trip related to national security during the break.

Moran’s spokeswoman, Katie Niederee, said in an email that the senator had “meetings with German, French and British foreign and defense ministers. Additionally, Senator Moran met with NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, American General Curtis Scaparrotti, to discuss the state of U.S. military installations in Europe.”

Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, posted a photo of himself with Moran and fellow Republican Sens. John Thune and Lindsey Graham on Wednesday.

Moran responded the next day with a tweet saying, “Cooperation w/ our allies is critical to keeping us safe against the complex threats we face.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, also had no town halls this week because she was on a congressional trip to the U.S.-Mexican border.

McCaskill’s spokeswoman, Sarah Feldman, said that the senator has “always been a major proponent of town halls…and is looking forward to continuing that practice this year, and continuing to get home frequently to Missouri and travel the state hearing from Missourians.”

Roberts had events throughout Kansas during the break, including a hearing on the farm bill in Manhattan that was open to the general public, according to his spokeswoman, Sarah Little.

“No one understands the impacts of Farm Bills or policies set in Washington like America’s farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. Your experience — your story — is what we need to hear before we start writing a new Farm Bill,” Roberts told the crowd in Manhattan, according to a release from his office.

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