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Saying There's No Dialogue, Tillis Avoids Traditional Town Halls

Thom Tillis (right) spoke with the Charlotte Business Alliance this summer.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Thom Tillis (right) spoke with the Charlotte Business Alliance this summer.

After Thom Tillis defeated Kay Hagan five years ago to win his Senate seat, he said he would hold town halls in an effort to represent all North Carolinians.

At a news conference shortly after the 2014 election, Tillis said, "I think a part of what you do is you get out within the state. I’ll be home every weekend, I’ll travel back every week, and I’ll spend time going out and doing what I did when I became speaker -- town hall meetings. Talk about what your priorities are. Listening and speaking to them."

But Tillis hasn’t kept that pledge to hold town halls, at least not in the traditional sense.

Instead, he holds quasi-town halls – small events with constituents that aren’t open to the general public. Tillis held one last week with farmers in Union County. He says events like that count as town halls, even if they aren't open to the general public.

"I did it down in Fort Bragg," Tillis said. "I did it down in Camp Lejeune. Do it with business groups where we can have an exchange. I don’t ask people to just ask me just friendly questions. Let’s have a good discussion and dialogue and maybe agree to disagree."

The problem, Tillis says, is that activists have turned town halls into shouting contests.

"What you see now are people taking cameras trying to get B-roll and advancing their political agenda, and not really not trying to have a dialogue," he said. "And I hope we get back to that point where we can go in and assume we'll have a good exchange of ideas."

NC Sen. Thom Tillis (left) held a meeting for Union County farmers last week.
Credit Steve Harrison/WFAE
NC Sen. Thom Tillis (left) held a meeting for Union County farmers last week.

Anger toward Republicans intensified after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, when liberal voters often challenged -- and sometimes shouted at -- GOP lawmakers during town halls. Many were upset that Republicans were trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But that political rage arguably began in 2009 after President Barack Obama’s election – five years before Tillis pledged to hold town halls.

"2010 and the Tea Party outrage -- particularly not just to Democrats, but to Republicans as well -- I felt like it reshaped the environment," said Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer. "For an elected official, I don’t want to have to subject myself to that, so I’m going to control the environment, if at all possible."

Fear of viral moments

Politicians are afraid of so-called viral moments, in which a constituent asks them a pointed question – usually while being videotaped. That’s what happened to Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst last week at a town hall, when she was asked about the president asking China to investigate former vice president Joe Biden.

“Where is the line? When are you guys going to say enough?" a town hall attendee asked her

Last month, a town hall held by Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was targeted by a political action committee associated with former right-wing presidential candidate Lyndon Larouche. In an attempt to make her supporters appear unhinged, a member of the audience told Ocasio-Cortez that the only way to stop climate change was to eat babies … because there were too many people on earth.

"So I think your next campaign slogan has to be this, 'We have to start eating babies,'"the woman shouted at the town hall. "We don’t have enough time, there's too much CO2!"

The web site Legistorm says Tillis did not hold town halls in 2015 and 2016. It says he last held a town hall in 2017 – but it was by telephone. That was  the same year a man yelled at Tillis during a Durham business luncheon, saying he was “Timid Tillis” for not answering questions about health care.

A representative for Tillis did not respond to comment on whether the senator has held a traditional town hall open to anyone.

North Carolina’s other senator, Richard Burr, last held an in-person town hall in 2015, though he held two telephone town halls in 2017.

Tillis events are often before Republican-friendly audiences, like a Charlotte Business Alliance Event this summer onprotecting intellectual property from China

At last week’s Union County meeting, for instance, a group of farmers was mostly supportive of the senator, though some had concerns over tariffs.

One farmer, however, asked Tillis about tariffs.

"We have taken a considerable higher hit on that as a result of these tariffs, as a result of these lost exports to China," farmer James Howie said.

Last month, Democratic State Sen. Jeff Jackson told UNC Charlotte students that he was discouraged from holding town halls if he ran against Tillis. 

Jackson told the story of how hemet with Senate minority leader Churck Schumer earlier this year about a possible Senate run. Jackson told Schumer he wanted to do "100 town halls in 100 days," but Schumer told him, "Wrong answer."

Schumer told Jackson he would be better off raising money in a "windowless basement."

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Steve Harrison is a reporter and host at WFAE, covering politics and government. In addition to his on-air stories, Steve hosts theInside Politicspodcast and writes itsweekly newsletter.
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