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An Insider’s View of an Iowa Town Hall Meeting

February 26th, 2017 · No Comments

Friday, Feb. 24 was the day of the last of four town halls Sen. Charles Grassley held in Iowa during that week. The town halls, each filled with hundreds of Iowans, have attracted the attention of statewide and national news media, whose headlines captured the general spirit of the events:

Sen. Grassley

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) addresses the crowd at a town hall in Parkersburg.


The town hall I attended was at the tiny Civic Center in Parkersburg, which has the modest look of a school cafeteria with its vinyl tile floor and low drop-ceiling. After a week of freakishly warm February weather, this was a day more like winter, with freezing rain and slick sidewalks and roads.

Still, people came out – more than 250 by one newspaper’s account – and the room was packed.

While the national accounts focused on the conflict of the meetings, what they often miss are the local context, the history of the relationship between the elected official and the citizens, and what the elected official says – and sometimes more importantly – what he doesn’t say.

Parkersburg, with a population of about 1,950, is the largest city in Butler County, which has about 15,000 people and is in the northeast part of the state. Before Grassley began, Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson, in full uniform, stepped in front of the crowd to lay down some rules.

Sheriff Jason Johnson is one of Grassley’s fellow Republicans, and has Grassley to thank, in part, for his position as Butler County sheriff. In 2006, Grassley appointed the previous sheriff to the U.S. Marshals Service. Johnson, who was with the county sheriff’s office for 11 years, was appointed by the county supervisors to replace him in May 2006, and he won the election that November when he ran unopposed as a Republican. He has won every election since that time, each time running unopposed on the Republican ticket. Butler County also happens to be where Grassley’s home is. So, Grassley is Johnson’s U.S. Senator, and Johnson is Grassley’s county sheriff.

Sheriff Johnson

Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson and his list of rules for engagement.

Johnson’s introductory comments recited a typical code of conduct until he began to wrap up:

…and be respectful of others. So, pretty elementary stuff, right, let’s be respectful of others. Now, if you come here from somewhere, rather you were paid to be here, or are here voluntarily…

Immediately the shocked crowd lit up with groans, boos, and shouts of “That’s enough!” “You use your inside voice!” “Be Iowa nice!” “You are not professional!” and “That is not ok!”

Smiling sheepishly, Johnson held out his hands, and twisted around to see what Grassley’s reaction was. But, Grassley, standing behind Johnson, kept looking down at his notes and purposefully excluded himself from the situation.

“I didn’t mean to be insulting,” Johnson finally said.

“Well, it was!” someone responded.

Johnson tried to regroup: “So, we’ll go for Iowa Nice. Everybody’s on board with that?” And, he ended with “I apologize if I’ve offended you.”

“You did offend,” several called back.

Grassley is one of two U.S. senators representing the whole state of Iowa. But, there was a reason so many “outsiders” attended this town hall meeting in Butler County. Chuck Grassley has cultivated a reputation of being a politician who visits every one of Iowa’s 99 counties every year. In fact, on his Senate web site announcing the four town hall meetings scheduled for the week, he noted “With these meetings, Senator Grassley will continue his long-standing practice of holding meetings with Iowans in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties at least once every year. Senator Grassley has held a meeting in every county, every year since he was first elected to serve in the U.S. Senate.”

Yet, on further investigation, he has scheduled private, not public events in Iowa’s most populous counties, including Black Hawk County, the urban county adjacent to Butler County. So, he gets to claim he visited every county, but it’s certainly not in the spirit of an open exchange with constituents when he holds private events in Iowa’s largest counties (home to Iowa’s largest cities, including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Iowa City, Dubuque, Ames, and Sioux City).

As the Iowa Starting Line blog explained, “Why avoid public ones there? Because they’re also the state’s most-Democratic and where Grassley is most likely to encounter resistance to his hard-right shift in the U.S. Senate these past six years.”

So, when Republican Sheriff Jason Johnson chose to jab at the citizens filling the room in Parkersburg, he was exploiting the fact that the majority of those people had to drive significant distances (20 to 80 miles or more) to attend a town hall. It wasn’t an invasion of paid outsiders; it was a burdensome, necessary trip for those who Grassley has been strategically avoiding for years. And, it was the kind of routine political jab that this audience would not tolerate.

Interestingly, Johnson’s joking effort to undermine the authenticity of the audience belies the fact that the majority of Butler County residents aren’t farmers. Many of them instead treat Butler County as a bedroom community and commute to the more populous nearby counties like Black Hawk County for jobs.

And the love goes both ways. When a horrible EF5 tornado struck Parkersburg and nearby New Hartford, Iowa on May 25, 2008, killing nine people and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, people from neighboring counties –and from across America – selflessly volunteered their time and money to help in the recovery and rebuilding of the towns.

So, suggesting or joking that big-city, organized outsiders have invaded small-town Iowa was an unfair and unjustified slur (and mimics the same insinuation from Trump).

“To suggest that anyone was paid clearly indicates the Sheriff’s own biases and his fear that there may be citizens who disagree with his own views,” said Elizabeth Sutton, an educator from Cedar Falls and one of the attendees. “It is disheartening that an elected official would say such things in a public setting and perpetuate misinformation and foster divisiveness.”

At 83 years old, Grassley is a political pro, a career politician in his 59th year of public office. He won his first election to the Iowa legislature in 1958, and served there until he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974, and the U.S. Senate in 1980.

Most questions had to do with the hard-right shift that Grassley has made late in his career. Once a moderate from a purple state (Iowans for years had Democrat Tom Harkin on the left and Grassley on the right representing them in the Senate), Grassley of recent years is the guy who said the Affordable Care Act would create death panels to determine the fate of the ill, the guy who used his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee to deny hearings to Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the guy who has been mostly invisible while Donald Trump became president and brought his boasts of groping women, a host of business conflicts-of-interest, a pattern of Russian influence, more bald-face lies than one can count, and an unprecedented attack on the free press to the White House.

Grassley’s approach at public town hall meetings is the political version of Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope: cover up and protect by not answering some of the hardest questions, and wear down the crowd with a slow pace, flat speaking style, and emotionless expression.

Grassley ducked questions on a number of matters by avoiding giving his position and instead noting where the bill is in the process (as if his opinion and vote was not part of that process), or reciting a few facts about the issue.

One of the first speakers was Chris Schwartz, a newly elected Democrat on the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors. He invited Grassley to hold a public town hall meeting in Black Hawk County, which has 132,000 residents. “We’ll get you the UNI-Dome if you want it,” Schwartz said, referring to the University of Northern Iowa’s 16,300-seat domed stadium. Schwartz nicely but directly addressed Grassley’s town hall problem: “This 99-county tour thing is rather misleading. You know better than I do that you don’t hold public meetings in places like Black Hawk County. So, we need you to come to speak to these residents that we both represent.”

Schwartz then asked for Grassley’s advocacy on behalf of his county’s publicly-operated nursing home, which is getting hurt by the Medicaid reimbursement rate. Grassley had no comment to anything Schwartz said, and pointed to the back of the room for another question.

Grassley avoided or sidestepped several other questions:

On Obamacare: “It’s my understanding that it will be next week or the following week by the House of Representatives.”

On financial regulations, including the executive order against Dodd-Frank, the vote to repeal SEC rule for energy disclosure of foreign investments, and the attack on the fiduciary rule that requires financial advisors to act on best interest of investors: Grassley identified some tweaks to the law, but made no statement regarding protecting consumers and investors.

On the low minimum wage: Grassley said he has supported raising it in the past, especially when he can help small businesses. He said he supported raising it when unemployment is low, but ignored a shout that the unemployment rate currently is low.

On climate change: A young father made an impassioned speech, and concluded “Senator, I’m here to ask for you to commit to do everything in your power to support climate change research to stop this greatest curse to face humanity.” Grassley didn’t respond, and when the crowd asked him to answer the question, he said it was a statement, and he heard it.

Precise questions were the most successful in getting Grassley to articulate a clear position:

A man asked Grassley to address Trump’s charge that the press is the enemy of the people. Grassley replied, “The press is not the enemy of the people. The press is policemen for our representative system of government. It’s what we count on to keep all levels of government—state, county, federal, school districts, every level of government—honest, and we count on it.”

Then the man followed up with a more specific question: “The president of the United States said, in so many words, they are the enemy of the people. Does that not scare you at all?

“I would tell you this. I would tell the president he’s wrong,” Grassley finally replied.

The crowd roared.

“Have you? Have you told him?” a woman in front of him asked.

“Well, I haven’t seen the president for a long time,” Grassley trailed off, and immediately called on another for a question. “Tell him on Twitter,” suggested a voice from the crowd.

In another exchange, one audience member, Martie Reineke of Cedar Falls, brought a letter she received from Grassley’s office in response to her inquiry about Syrian immigration. She read the part of Grassley’s letter that said, “You need to make sure that the bad guys are having a much more thorough screening process.”

Reineke then said, “So, I’m going to read you what I understand to be the screening process, and I’d like to know what needs to be more thorough.” After reciting a long list of vetting procedures, she noted “it takes 18 to 24 months already. The persons who make it through: 50 percent are children, 25 percent are over 60. Only 2 percent are young men.”

She concluded: “I don’t know what you want that’s more thorough. This is really, really, really thorough. And we need to be welcoming to these persons who have gone through horrendous experiences.”

Grassley didn’t have an answer on what so-called “extreme vetting” would be. “I think your question is very specific, but if you want me to say 1, 2, 3, 4 in addition to what you said that needs to be done, I can’t give you that, but I would expect the state department to care of this problem that [it] wouldn’t be an issue,” he said.

Grassley might have stopped there, but then he veered into Trump’s “bad hombre” mindset, and began talking about dangers of immigrants from the Middle East and the fear of terrorism.

“I feel guilty every time we have 90 people killed in Orlando, two in Chattanooga… “ he started, and the crowd immediately shouted down the examples as not relevant to immigration from Syria.

“Your leadership needs to go above the politics of fear,” Reineke responded. “You need to share the message from Iowa that you started your letter with and started your response with, which we have been a welcoming nation and a welcoming state and we have nothing to fear because our community groups put their arms around immigrants and make sure they’re safe and welcome,” she said.

“People are afraid,” Grassley concluded, and moved on to another question despite calls from the audience, including “you’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

In another exchange, John Mullen of La Porte City (about 44 miles away from Parkersburg) stood to ask Grassley about his ethics. He offered a long list of President Trump’s moral transgressions, including his chronic lying, belittling people with physical handicaps, degrading Vietnam POWs (including McCain), attacking the dignity of Gold Star Families, charging the press is the enemy of the American people, refusing to release taxes and withdraw from business contracts, groping women, and dismissing Russian involvement in elections. During this, Grassley retreated to his table, taking notes (as if these topics were new to him), and looking at the clock on the wall more than once (just 15 minutes to go!).

Mullen concluded: “Tell me where your standards are at, Senator, how low are they that these things don’t bother you enough that you will speak out and say ‘enough is enough’.”

Mullen’s question sparked the morning’s one standing ovation. Grassley moved away, looking for another question, but the crowd booed and shouted “Do your job!” “Answer him!”  “Answer the guy.” And even an Iowa-nice “Please answer the question.”

Grassley remained stone-faced, but at his waist he nervously fumbled with his pen.

Finally, Grassley said “I think I spoke very strongly. One example he [Mullen] gave that came out from the president in October, I spoke very strongly against it. It was printed in the paper so everybody could read it.” The audience clearly was not satisfied with his answer.

The last speaker, Miriam Tyson of Waterloo, spoke highly of Grassley’s many years of service, but then said “Ever since you got in the leadership position on the Judiciary committee, I feel that you have disappointed us” and cited the Merrick Garland case.

Tyson’s last words summarized what most of the crowd had asked Grassley during the entire hour, and during the four town halls of the week: As Trump moves forward on his agenda, she said, “I want you to push back.”

Tags: Journalism Ethics

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