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Saturday, August 15, 2009

On Disarmament, Or, How Congressman Larsen Made A "Town Hall" Work

We’ve all been hearing the “Town Hall Meeting” stories the past few days, and the images presented have been of gatherings where you might see some current or former official “death panel” for the benefit of the crowd, where the few people who shout the loudest bully the rest into silence, and where threats of physical intimidation are part of the debate.

I attended one of these meetings, and based on what I saw I’m here to tell you that it is possible to hold an event that features none of the images previously described.

Instead, what I say was an event where people asked their questions, the Congressman answered—and from time to time the angry members of the audience got their shout on, too...but not in a way that was able to ever take control of the venue.

There were helpful lessons that can be applied by others who want to have these meetings, and today’s conversation examines what can be done to make them work for you, too.

Let’s start by meeting the players:

Rick Larsen is the Member of Congress representing Washington State’s Second District. A Democrat, he first won his seat in the 2000 election, and in 2008 he defeated former Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart by a 62-38% margin.

The (mostly rural) Second District is bordered by Puget Sound on the west, British Columbia to the north (Vancouver is just a short drive from the I-5 border crossing at Blaine, Washington), the Cascade Mountains to the east, and Seattle’s northern suburbs to the south.

From south to north, major cities include Everett (former fishing, lumber and harbor town), Mount Vernon (the largest town in a region known for tulips and eagles and agriculture and formerly, commercial fishing and lumber), and Bellingham (college town, and, again, former fishing and lumber town). All three towns grew substantially as a result of the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s.

There are numerous Indian Tribes within the District, as well as two significant military installations: Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Naval Station Everett.

Larsen had held a previous Town Hall in Mount Vernon that attracted a crowd that was several times the capacity of the venue, so at the last minute Everett Memorial Stadium was booked for this event.

(Fun Fact: this stadium is the home of the minor-league Everett AquaSox, one of the few sports teams to ever take the field in tie-dye uniforms.)

By my count, roughly 2500 were present—but there was an interesting distribution: it appeared to me that the “Diamond Club” seats right behind home plate, and the two sections on either side, were thickly populated with supporters of reform, with opponents “flanking” them to the left and right. The main entrance is on the third base side, and the seats filled up from that side as well, with the seats out past first base being the most empty.

It was not “high summer”, by any means, and at “game time” (5 PM) we had a cloudy sky and a temperature of roughly 65 degrees.

Larsen stood on the field near home plate, and as soon as he started speaking you could see he had three advantages: the large outdoor venue meant that no single person could shout down the meeting, Larsen’s access to the PA system meant that he could always be heard even if a group tried to “chant out” the meeting, and his use of “runners” to take the microphone to each questioner meant no “in your face” screaming matches were going to take place.

Another smart move: Larsen limited his discussion to one specific bill (HR 3200), which allowed him to avoid having to speculate as to what might or might not be in any other possible proposal.

Beyond that, he made it clear in his opening remarks that he would be willing to spend up to 2 ½ hours to answer questions and that the microphone would be getting to every section, in turn, as much as needed; this seemed to remove much of the concern that people would be shut down and left unable to ask questions.

Additionally, he was more than willing to challenge those with whom he disagreed, as evidenced by his answer to one question from the crowd:

“I’ve got facts on my side and you’ve got Glenn Beck on your side...”

At the same time, he was able to use the PA and personal attention to his advantage during questioning. The “runners with mic” system made sure that all questions, from supporters and opponents, could not be drowned out, and by giving real attention to each questioner and presenting a “non form-letter” response (the PA assuring that his answer also could not be drowned out), Larsen was able to show that this was indeed a conversation and not a shouting match.

The crowd also acted as a moderating influence. A number of the questions came from people who seemed as reasonable as they could be, and when some extremist language was presented, the crowd exerted its own influence.

Here’s an example: a questioner asked the Congressman and the crowd to try to come up with one example of Government ever doing anything right, or words to that effect. The crowd offered some supportive cheers.

A couple of questioners later, a man stood up and told the crowd that he did not appreciate the last 20 years of his life being disrespected. He pointed out that the United States Navy, in which he serves, is the finest military force of its kind on the planet (this, in what is today very much a Navy town)...and all of a sudden, the “Government can’t do anything right” supporters, many of whom appeared to be military retirees (based on their age and choice of hats), found themselves...moderated.

About 90 minutes in Larsen called for a “7th inning stretch”, but much of the crowd took that as an invitation to leave, particularly as it was beginning to get cold, and it was starting to rain. Within a few minutes roughly 1500 of the original 2500 people had left.

The event, all in all, was kept under control, and those who came to disrupt were unsuccessful in creating an environment where that could happen...and a lot of that was because of the efforts of Larsen and his staff.

The goal of this exercise is not to go through all the questions and answers and crowd reactions, but I will tell you that I heard a woman behind us asking out loud about what would happen to senior citizens if the Government ever took over Medicare, which I found both profoundly humorous and profoundly sad.

So what can we make from all of this?

First off, a large venue makes it much tougher for any individual or group to take over the event.

Getting your people into a cohesive group near the center of the action is also quite helpful.

Ensuring that the PA is loud enough to always overpower any “disrupters” is vital.

Making sure the crowd understands that nearly everyone who wants to will get to ask questions matters—and it also matters if you appear to be giving reasonable answers to reasonable questions.

Be a bit of a parent, and call the kids out when they deserve it.

Finally, if a questioner says Government can’t do anything right—ask ‘em why they want to disrespect the brave men and women of our Armed Forces. If you’re in Texas...or North Carolina...or California...or Florida—ask ‘em twice.

If you are going to have to campaign for office every two years (and as a Member of Congress, you do), creating a positive image that transcends electoral cycles can be a great thing. These Town Halls offer that opportunity—and if you do it right, you’ll be able to say that you “listened to the voters” and “stood up for the People” and “made the tough decisions”, despite the efforts of special interests to “hijack the process”, for years to come.

And that, Future Candidates, is not a bad image to take on the campaign trail.

SPECIAL NOTE: We note today the recent passage of Les Paul. Many will remember him as the man who made the electric guitar famous, and still others will remember his work with Mary Ford...but if you have ever stood behind turntables or made a mix or a mashup, you should know that everything you’re doing today also came straight from the mind of Les Paul, who was just about the only person on the planet Earth making 24-track overdub recordings all the way back in 1951.

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