On a clear and chilly Sunday afternoon in February, I walked into the Elm Grove Village Hall for my 29th town hall meeting of 2017. Unlike the meetings held there in 2016, where an average of 12 to 15 people would attend, this day brought a couple hundred people who stood in a line that wrapped around the building, waiting for the doors to open. Local and national reporters interviewed dozens of people as their cameramen shot footage of the crowd chanting and holding up signs. Organizers representing various local and national activist groups walked among the crowd handing out leaflets and lists of prepared questions to pose during the meeting, and circulated sign-up sheets to join the “resistance.”
Inside, law enforcement officers, under the advisement of U.S. Capitol Police, assumed their posts as chants from outside grew louder. When the doors were opened, the stream of people poured into the meeting room, quickly filling every seat and packing into the standing area until maximum capacity was reached. At least 100 more remained outside.
From the moment I began the meeting, much of what I said was met with loud boos and the waving of “disagree” signs. Some spoke over individuals who didn’t agree with their points of view while others interrupted recognized speakers.
Scenes like this one occurred regularly during the 115 town meetings I held throughout my district since January, 2017, as well as throughout the country. Amplified by the increasingly polarized political climate and fueled through organized protest groups, contentious town halls have become commonplace this year.
But no matter how factious, perverse, disrespectful or uncomfortable such meetings have become, the importance of holding them never diminishes. Rather than avoid the unpleasant atmosphere of some of my meetings this year, I chose to carry on. Positive change can’t happen without open and honest dialogue between elected officials and their constituents, and accountability to those we represent is critical for a truly representative government.
I’ve held frequent, in-person town hall meetings since I was first elected to Congress because I believe that people not only deserve to see who represents them, but also to have a public forum to voice their concerns and discuss the issues of the day. The people who attend my meetings hold ideological beliefs that span the political spectrum, and I’ve made a point to be accessible to them all. Whether or not we agree, we can be agreeable. It’s how we grow as communities and as a nation.
These meetings are also important for me because they allow me to stay current with the pulse of my district. Some critics like to claim I don’t listen to what my constituents are saying, but that could not be further from the truth. For example, two of my legislative priorities over the past Congress – opioid addiction crisis and criminal justice reform – have been raised by constituents repeatedly in town hall meetings. I authored two bills to address these issues, one of which, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), was signed into law in 2016.
I will not walk back the promises I make to voters who soundly elect me to represent their interests; however, I do listen to all points of view, consider the merits of each argument, and weigh input from constituents when making policy decisions. Dissenting views are important and I know that sound policy decisions contain input from both sides of the aisle.
While town hall meetings can be difficult, they are important to a healthy democracy. When you peel back the many layers of partisan politics that are dominating the national conversation, you will find genuine people who want to make a difference for their communities and their country. This is what motivates me and that’s why I continue to hold town hall meetings.
Sensenbrenner represents Wisconsin's 5th District and is a member of the Judiciary Committee.