U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart’s town hall meeting would have made Thomas Jefferson proud. Elderly couples filed into West High’s auditorium along with young hipsters, parents pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs to meet their representative eyeball to eyeball. Jefferson would have delighted in the spectacle of government answering directly to its citizens.
Then all hell broke loose. In seconds, Stewart’s March town hall, like one a month earlier for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, rocked with anger, as the overflowing crowd chanted “Protect Bears Ears” and “Save Obamacare” while waving “DISAGREE” and “Wild Utah” placards. Could it be possible that polite, famously docile Utahns were screaming “Do your JOB!” at their extremely nervous congressmen?
“It’s a cultural thing. Utah, everybody knows, is civil and polite and reasoned,” says Madalena McNeil of Utahns Speak Out. “But this is not just young agitators. It’s people of all ages who are fed up with being polite and quiet. [Politicians] have never seen anything like this before in Utah. Behind closed doors, they are scared.”
Ever since these messy explosions of democracy, Utah’s delegation has run for cover, avoiding contact with large groups of constituents. Beyond tele-town halls, Rep. Mia Love will meet with no more than five constituents at a time, and her staff wants to vet participants and bar recording or media. Pundits lament what they call the “incivility” at the meetings. But incivility doesn’t quite describe it—a more accurate term for the voters’ behavior is rage.
“They didn’t expect people to be as angry as they are,” says McNeil. “There’s a power dynamic at play, and [politicians] know they have the power. I have no power except to vote for Stewart’s opponent, which won’t change anything because gerrymandering has taken my vote. Or, I can shout at him at a town hall. The power difference is so big being civil doesn’t work—he just doesn’t care.”
Stewart gets credit for holding a town hall in enemy territory. Salt Lake City—predominantly Democratic—has been surgically divided between the dominantly GOP congressional districts, making it nearly impossible for a Democrat to win. The GOP bubble of arrogance was obvious when Stewart seemed sincerely dumbfounded to learn the crowd of more than 1,000 disagreed vehemently with the Utah delegation’s far-right agenda on healthcare, public lands and immigration. Stewart appeared baffled by the shouts of “gerrymandering” when he bragged that more than 60 percent of the district voted for him.
Chaffetz faced 1,000 protestors at Brighton High who chanted “Do your job” and “Investigate Trump!” Outside another 1,800 protestors chanted “Bring him out!” eerily echoing the mobs in Frankenstein movies. Chaffetz responded by losing his cool and baiting the crowd that he later claimed was seeded with paid agitators. (Attendees cheekily billed Chaffetz for their time.)
But some observers, including former Hinckley Institute Director Kirk Jowers, who has been leading the Count My Vote effort to restructure Utah’s caucus system to allow more public participation, see an upside to the raucous meetings. Utah voter turnout this year dipped to nearly its lowest point in two decades with only about 55 percent of voters showing up at the polls. The meetings prove democracy still has a pulse.
“People are frustrated,” says Jowers, a staunch Republican. “Democracy is tough enough as it is without so many artificial means of making voters feel disenfranchised. You walk onto the football field feeling like you’ve already lost the game.”
Katie Matheson of the CD4 Coalition that is trying to get Love to hold a town hall says constituents are beyond frustration. “Utah politics and gerrymandering go hand in hand,” she says. “I told Mia Love ‘I’m progressive and I’m disenfranchised. What are you going to do to give me a voice?’ Love was genuinely surprised that someone felt that they didn’t have a voice in Utah politics. I’ve been to Love’s office three times. I feel like I’m talking to a wall.’”
The congressional delegation, Matheson says, seems to think town halls should be rallies for their supporters. “A town hall is not a place where we are going to debate the semantics of their legislation,” she says. “The point is to show our representatives that there are people who care deeply and are not happy with what they are doing. We need to be heard. A town hall is a place for voters to join together to tell our representatives, ‘You are our voice in Washington, too.’ “
McNeil says it’s a last resort for the disenfranchised: “These town halls are not just venting. It’s a way to tell our representatives, ‘You work for us and we aren’t afraid of you.’”
Jefferson couldn’t have phrased it better.