Constituent town halls happen 'with or without' congressman

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Constituents from across Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, frustrated at what they see as a lack of face-to-face communication with Rep. Jason Lewis, hosted a "with or without" town hall Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Wentworth Library in West St. Paul. They hosted a similar event Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Burnhaven Library in Burnsville.

The town halls — which Lewis was invited to but chose not to attend — were timed to coincide with a Congressional recess, a period when U.S. senators and representatives typically return to their home districts to connect with constituents.

This year, town halls held by Republican members of Congress have drawn large, sometimes hostile crowds. On Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside the Sartell, Minn. city hall for a town hall with Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents Minnesota's 6th U.S. Congressional District. Approximately 600 people packed Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth on Thursday for a town hall with 3rd Congressional District Rep. Erik Paulsen, who also did not attend.

In an emailed statement, Lewis said he remains committed to holding a town hall in the district.

"While the voting schedule in Washington has been particularly busy, I have been taking advantage of all the ways I have to meet, hear from and see constituents at home or in Washington," Lewis wrote. "I do not endorse a partisan, political point-scoring event filtering down from nationally organized 'Indivisible' groups with handbooks from Democrat former staffers. I want a respectful exchange with those who want to be heard."

At Thursday's town hall in West. St. Paul, organizer Dana Koletar objected to being dismissed as a nationally-organized, partisan group.

"We're just average constituents in your district who want to talk to you. We're not scary, we're not rude, we're not loud, we are not paid," Koletar said.

The town hall opened with a review of Lewis' voting record in Congress so far, with the approximately 80 participants putting up "Agree" or "Disagree" signs for particular legislation or political stances. Attendees were also encouraged to fill out notecards with their questions and comments and share those concerns on camera. Both the notecards and video from the town hall will be sent to Lewis, organizer Caren Gallager said.

Issues raised at the town hall included health care, immigration, the environment and education, although attendees also expressed a range of other concerns.

Kristi Harvey of Hastings urged Lewis to "put country over partisan politics" and support a full, bipartisan investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 presidential election "and whether the Russians have further ties to the Trump administration."

Ceri Everett of Red Wing, who works as special education teacher in Minneapolis, said she wanted to make sure Lewis knew the impact Trump's executive order on travel was having on her Somali and East African students and their families.

"We know that this is directly impacting our people in our district," Everett said. "This proposed seven-country ban impacts my students. I have had students leave our country, go back to Somalia to visit family, and have a very challenging time getting back."

Stephen Bradford, communications director for Rep. Lewis, said the congressman has spent the recess meeting with civic groups, environmental groups, businesses, and elected officials in Minnesota.

"This is definitely something that's close to his heart, is getting all around the district and hearing from all the different groups about how he can be an effective representative for them in D.C.," said Bradford.

Photos on Lewis' Facebook page show stops at Red Wing Shoes, Vermillion State Bank, House of Coates, the Scott County Farm Bureau, the Shakopee City Council, and DaVita over the last week.

Before the recess, Lewis held two telephone town halls with constituents in the district. During a telephone town hall, a randomly selected group of district residents are called and able to listen and ask questions. Through those calls, Lewis has been able to speak with thousands of constituents across every county in the district, Bradford said.

Bradford also encouraged constituents to connect with Lewis on social media or reach out to staff in his Minnesota or Washington D.C. offices. Links to that information can be found on his website, jasonlewis.house.gov