Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) probably thought his recent townhall could get contentious before it even started. Many recent townhalls have. He probably didn’t anticipate, though, that the townhall would devolve into near pandemonium when he asked the audience to stop listening to conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, one of the leading and most outspoken critics of the president and Democrats’ proposals for healthcare reform. As the video below shows, Inglis nearly loses control of the event after saying, “Turn Glenn Beck off.”
The August congressional recess has, at least so far, been marked by chaotic townhalls that lawmakers have had trouble controlling. Numerous reports have highlighted disruptions around the country and videos are spreading virally (search “townhall” and “protest” on YouTube, for example). The demonstrations have veteran advance consultants thinking of ways—from signing up townhall participants several days in advance to not inviting the press to avoiding the townhall format altogether—that lawmakers can keep better control of their recess events and avoid unruly confrontations. Rick Jasculca of Jasculca, Terman and Associates did advance work for Bill and Hillary Clinton when they were in the White House and on Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaigns. He recommended forgoing the townhall format for smaller group discussions that are easier to control. “We like to recommend to our clients smaller groups,” he said. “Rather than 300 people in a townhall, you have 15 or 20 people and have a real discussion.” Jasculca called this format a “neighborhood dialogue” and noted that it takes a lot more advance work and the lawmaker would have to do many more of these than townhalls to reach as many constituents. But, he added, these dialogues are more manageable. “Townhall meetings, although I think they can have a great value, also can be taken over,” he said. “Clearly that is what’s going on now.” Another way of avoiding conflict is closing your townhall to the press, said John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Aristotle, a nonpartisan firm. Every lawmaker, Phillips said, has the right to keep the media from his or her events. “If you invite the press people are going to be more vocal,” Phillips said. “The fact of the matter is the press doesn’t have to be there. And if you invite the press, you have to be responsible for the consequences of that.” Laurie Moskowitz, a veteran field organizer at FieldWorks, also suggested taking more time in advance to sign up participants for the townhall. That way, she said, lawmakers can ensure constituents are in the room and get a better idea of who will be there. And, in a recommendation similar to Jasculca’s, Moskowitz also suggested doing townhalls in phases, where the lawmaker meets with smaller, more manageable groups. Ultimately, though, Moskowitz said the townhalls should continue. “I think they have to try to keep doing them, and I think they have to look for ways to keep the process going,” she said.Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer for Politics magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.