They’re holding a town hall, with or without delegation

Donna Marie says the constituent town hall she’s organizing will go on, even if no member of the congressional delegation comes to listen. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Donna Marie says the constituent town hall she’s organizing will go on, even if no member of the congressional delegation comes to listen. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

With the U.S. House and Senate on break, Alaskans alarmed by the Trump White House are pressuring the state’s Congressional delegation for a town hall meeting in the Anchorage area. Their push doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect.

Anchorage retiree Donna Marie said she doesn’t usually get involved in politics like this.

“I think the last time I knocked on doors for a candidate it was Jimmy Carter,” Marie said.

But the presidential election, the way it exposed deep rifts in society, and Marie’s concerns for health care and the environment, have activated her.

“Everybody online was talking about we need a town hall, we need a town hall, but nobody was doing anything about it,” Marie said.

Marie issued a Facebook invite for an organizing meeting. About 30 people have pitched in, she said, though not all at once. A handful met last week at a tea shop in midtown Anchorage.

They’ve rented Room 117 at Rasmuson Hall, and Marie said their town hall is happening, Wednesday evening at University of Alaska Anchorage, even if there are three empty seats behind the name cards for Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.

In the meantime, they’re wrestling with the basics of organizing, like managing email lists, and deciding whether they should have a Facebook page or a website.

“We’re learning as we go. None of us are paid operatives,” says one participant in the meeting.

“Most of us have never done anything before,” another said.

“We’re just people.”

“Yeah, people on a mission.”

The new activists consult national progressive websites like Indivisible and Moveon.org, which advise adopting the tactics Tea Party conservatives deployed a few years ago, this time to resist President Donald Trump’s agenda.

Like dissatisfied voters in Congressional districts around the country, these Alaskans feel like their Congressional delegation is dodging them.

“Oh, no. Absolutely not,” said Mike Anderson, spokesman for Sen. Dan Sullivan. “Sen. Sullivan very much values connecting with constituents and hearing from his fellow Alaskans. Large group, small, what have you.”

The senator spent the first week of the two-week recess training with his Marine Reserve unit in North Carolina. Now that Sullivan is in Alaska, Anderson said Sullivan is meeting with as many constituents as possible.

“He’ll be visiting six different communities in Alaska: Deadhorse, Barrow, Wainwright, Anchorage, Homer and Kenai,” Anderson said.

Sullivan can’t go to the town hall at UAA on Wednesday because his flight from the North Slope arrives too late, Anderson said, but he notes that Alaskans who want to talk to Sullivan have lots of ways to contact him, online and off.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Casey Steinau is among those calling on the delegation to hold a public meeting where anyone can come, though neither she nor the party are involved in Marie’s organizing effort.

Steinau said Alaskans want to tell their members of Congress they’re displeased with, for instance, the votes the three took to repeal Internet privacy rules, and they want to do it in large groups, to show the power behind their voices. Besides, Steinau said a public meeting is more efficient.

“When somebody is in a room full of 200 people, and that person says, you know, ‘we have a real problem with selling our private information without our permission,’ and 200 people say ‘here, here!”‘ or ‘yes, I agree,’ well, then they don’t have to have that meeting 200 times,” Steinau said. “They only have to have it once.”

To highlight the lack of town halls, the Alaska Democratic Party put “Wanted” posters of the delegation on its Facebook page.

Young responded by posting a photo of the congressman facing constituents in Petersburg and the message “Nice try! Great meetings across the state.”

Young is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce.

Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Peterson said her boss has a full slate of appointments with people who requested meetings well in advance, and she didn’t know of any meetings in Anchorage open to the public.

If any member of the delegation comes to the town hall at UAA, Donna Marie said she and other organizers are working to ensure it won’t be a shouting match.

They plan to issue red and green cards, so the audience can signal their position quietly.

She also said the public will have a chance to speak, regardless of who is there to listen. And, Marie said if the evening goes well, they’ll hold another town hall the next time Congress goes on break.

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