Amid polarized times, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner town hall draws just one (very polite) constituent
June 5, 2018
RUBICON - Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner held a town hall meeting here Monday.
It wasn’t raucous, stormy or packed, as many congressional town halls have been in recent years.
It was kind of the opposite, actually.
One person showed up. And he was pretty polite.
It was a first for me in more than three decades covering politics. By attending Monday morning’s town hall, 33-year-old Dave Mantz received an exclusive audience with both his federal (Sensenbrenner) and state (Mark Born of Beaver Dam) representatives.
Mantz was there to ask Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls about net neutrality, an issue over which he and the congressman disagree.
The two discussed their differences for a while before the conversation began to lag.
“OK, thanks for coming in,” Sensenbrenner told Mantz about five minutes after the 9 a.m. meeting began.
But nobody got up to leave because Sensenbrenner wasn’t due at his next meeting in the village of Neosho (population 574) until 10 a.m.
“I am trying to think of other issues I can ask about,” Mantz said a few moments later to the three of us in the room with him.
Then he returned to net neutrality.
Eventually, I joined in the conversation, which turned to the subject of town hall meetings.
Sensenbrenner is one of a dwindling number in Congress who hold regular in-person listening sessions. He held more than 100 last year. He has held 41 so far this year. I went to his town hall in Hartford Sunday night that drew 22 people. His town halls in Neosho and Lebanon Monday morning drew four and one respectively, according to an aide.
“I expected there to be at least one other (person),” said Mantz, who designs plastic injection molds and said he has had trouble getting high-speed internet.
“I think it is important to do these, at least to make myself available,” said Sensenbrenner, whose district has historically been the most Republican in Wisconsin. Donald Trump carried the town of Rubicon in Dodge County by 62 points in 2016.
When I tweeted a note and photo about the near-empty town hall on Twitter Monday, it sparked a lot of amusement, but also some very divergent reactions. Some saw it as a failure of citizens to participate. Some saw it as democracy in action. Some saw it as a shining example of a politician making himself accessible even in the smallest communities. Some suggested holding town halls in sparsely populated places on a work day was a way of avoiding crowds.
But Sensenbrenner has held meetings in much bigger communities, too. Some, in fact, have been raucous, stormy and packed, marked by protests and outcry over health care and other issues.
A meeting in Wauwatosa earlier this year ended in an outburst of chanting and heckling.
Sensenbrenner now typically begins his meetings with a gruff two-minute recitation of rules and warnings, as he did in Hartford Sunday night, where the crowd was larger but entirely civil.
“You may have heard some of these meetings have become contentious,” Sensenbrenner told his constituents there, before taking questions.
“If at any time participants become rude or disruptive, I will immediately adjourn the meeting as there is nothing positive to be gained from continuing with a meeting that is disorderly. We can all disagree without being disagreeable,” said Sensenbrenner.
In Rubicon, Sensenbrenner didn’t bother repeating his rules to an audience of one.
“I must not look too rowdy,” said Mantz.