LONG BEACH — When U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler didn’t turn up at Chautauqua Lodge for a town hall meeting on Friday evening, organizers in the 3rd Congressional District weren’t surprised — they were prepared.
A life-size cutout of Southwest Washington’s Republican congresswoman stood behind the elected state, county, city and school leaders who did show up. A decline in open-invitation forums for citizens has become a rally point for activists around the nation, particularly in light of failed Republican efforts to revamp federal healthcare policy.
Democratic state Rep. Brian Blake, of Aberdeen, made an unexpected appearance, taking a seat next to the six officials listed on the evening’s agenda.
They sat in front of a colorful cutout of their congresswoman since 2011, wearing fashionable pleated, red “mom” slacks, a white, navy blouse and a navy jacket with an American flag stuffed inside the left front pocket. She held a bunch of red, white and blue balloons, topping off her patriotic look.
Joining Blake in front of the cutout was Pacific County Commissioner Frank Wolfe, Sheriff Scott Johnson, Long Beach Mayor Jerry Phillips, Ocean Beach School Board member Kim Patten and Peninsula part-timer Kathryn Murdock, a Vancouver educator and attorney.
Democrat David McDevitt, who’s planning to take a second run against the four-term congresswoman, also sat on the panel. Herrera Beutler’s current two-year term ends in 2018. McDevitt lost against the congresswoman and former state representative in the 2016 primary.
In-person vs. phone
Herrera Beutler’s predecessor Brian Baird, the Democratic congressman who represented the 3rd District from 1999 to 2011, kicked off the evening with a video message he’d taped for the occasion. The six-term former congressman said he held more than 300 town halls in every incorporated city in the swing district during his tenure. He boasted about visiting every district hospital, port and school during his first term.
“Sadly, that’s not happening today,” Baird said, telling the crowd Herrera Beutler hasn’t been making herself available to the people she represents. “That’s just shameful.”
Herrera Beutler did hold a telephone town hall the evening before. She was chided by one caller for not holding Thursday’s meeting in-person. Herrera Beutler said since she took office, she’s held more than 65 town halls, both in-person and by phone.
“I’ll continue to utilize every method there is that fosters productive, civil dialogue with residents from all political viewpoints,” she said in a press release about the event. “There is a lot of interest in what’s happening in Washington, D.C. right now. And there’s no way to communicate live with as many people at once as a telephone town hall.”
During the hour-and-a-half-long talk, she took questions from about a dozen callers and asked them to participate in polls.
One survey had people chose what they thought should the top priority of Congress from four issues. Of those who responded, 41 percent picked healthcare, 27 percent were for the economy, 20 percent put national security first and 12 percent prioritized immigration reform.
‘Real town hall’
Those issues and others came up during the in-person town hall in Long Beach too.
Robert Blake, of Ocean Park, moderated the meeting that boasted a crowd of about 100. He said he and his wife, Gwen, wanted to help organize it because the city hasn’t had a “real town hall” in years.
“This is democracy in action right here,” he told the Observer Friday evening.
He warned the crowd to “disagree, agreeably” during the meeting that lasted more than two hours. Organizers were armed with plastic, blow-up panda bear heads to help break the tension if things got grizzly. But conversations hardly became heated.
Most people didn’t bother to hold up the red and white plates provided on each seat with a sad face on one side and smiley on the other.
Murdock, the lawyer and professor on the panel, said President Trump has been a “unifying force” in bringing women out to march around the world. “He’s increased our vocabulary too,” she joked.
Murdock said the country has evolved into a kakistocracy, meaning a government run by the least qualified or most unprincipled leaders.
Amateurs in charge?
Wolfe pointed out federal flubs and state snafus in handling the people’s business.
“When you put a bunch of amateurs in charge of making laws, be careful of what you wish for,” the county commissioner said.
Wolfe and Sheriff Johnson described the county’s ongoing budget troubles. They aren’t counting on federal or state dollars to get them back in the black either.
Mayor Phillips said small, cash-strapped cities across the state face similar woes. With mounting regulations and a dwindling natural-resource based economy, schools aren’t seeing those dollars trickle down either, Patten, a longtime educator, said.
While many regulations are put in place to protect people and the environment, some can be overly onerous.
“There are some things we do as government that lead to absurd outcomes,” Blake, the 15-year 19th District state lawmaker, said.
Although people didn’t get to question their federal representative during Friday’s town hall, they didn’t leave empty handed either. They were each given a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution.