I was at my friend Lyda’s house today for lunch. As we were carrying dishes into her kitchen, the phone rang. She looked at the Caller ID, which said JASON LEWIS.
“Why the is Jason Lewis calling you?” I asked. Jason Lewis is the US Congressional Representative for the 2nd District. Lyda does not live in the 2nd District; she lives in St. Paul, which is represented by Betty McCollum. Lyda has a St. Paul area code and a St. Paul exchange.
“I HAVE NO IDEA,” Lyda said.
“You could pick up and tell him to go to hell,” I suggested, helpfully.
“Feel free,” she said. So I picked up Lyda’s phone, expecting a deeply misguided fundraising phone call. Instead, I got a recording of Jason Lewis telling me that I had been invited to a Telephone Town Hall and if I wanted to stay on the line, I’d have the opportunity to hear from Congressman Lewis and (maybe) to ask him a question. Lyda was OK with me monopolizing her phone line and continuing to listen in, so I stayed on the line, pressed the keys to be added to the “ask question” queue, and live-Tweeted it.
A few minutes after I joined the queue, a staffer came on the line to ask my name, my town, and my question. (I was unable to remember where District 2 was and went with honesty, which was probably a tactical error even though he’s the one who called someone in St. Paul and the phone call did not say “press one to confirm you live in Jason’s district.”) You could outline your question in general terms; I strongly suspect that the staffer was looking for relative softballs, but they were then putting you on with Jason, radio-show style, not making you record your question to be asked without the possibility for followup.
Jason started out by talking for so long that I felt like I was being tricked into listening to him yammer. There was no indication at that point that this was indeed live and not a recording. There was also no way to know how many other people were “attending” the Town Hall, and although they were definitely recording (that was mentioned when you pressed *3 to say you wanted to ask a question) there does not appear to be anywhere that you can go to hear these town halls or read a transcript. (Lyda does not have a speaker phone so I really didn’t have a way to record it. It would have been legal: I would have been consenting, as a participant in the phone call, and would have had no criminal intent. But, no easy way to do it right then.)
Jason wanted to promote the GOP tax plan and was particularly focused on how much simpler it would be. (“How would you like to fill out your taxes on a postcard?” he asked. FYI, I’ve never wanted to fill out my taxes on a postcard because there is zero privacy with a postcard. “Don’t five tax brackets sound better than seven?” was another question that came up a lot. Nope! Not really!)
I can definitely see why “virtual town halls” are popular with chickenshit Republican representatives. They can simply hang up on you if you push back on their attempts to gaslight you (and that is exactly what he did. To be fair, he also quickly ended the call with the conspiracy theorist.) There are no cameras, and people are unlikely to be prepared with a speakerphone and recorder, because they had no idea that they were about to be ambushed by their congressman at 11:50 a.m. on a Tuesday. They may have a question, but they’re probably not armed with the specific evidence on the topic that they can use in the face of shameless lies.
I have no problem with offering virtual town halls in addition to real town halls, but it is absurd on its face to say that if you cold-call a random selection of people (some of them not even in your district) on a Tuesday at 11:50 a.m. and have phone conversations with a few of them while everyone listens, this counts as a legitimate alternative to town halls. If you want virtual town halls that more closely approximate real town halls, here are some suggestions:
- Give people notice and let them call in. Maybe have a setup where 40 randomly selected callers are in the “can ask a question” pool and everyone else just gets to listen.
- If you don’t want to let people call in, let them sign up to be called. Let them specify a time slot where they’re most likely to be available. Then tell them when you’re calling, so they can be there for it. As a bonus, this greatly decreases the odds that you will randomly autodial people who don’t live in your district.
- Livestream the conversation so that any of your constituents can listen in as it’s happening.
- Offer them as downloadable podcasts so that your constituents can hear what got asked and how you responded.
I mean, Jason Lewis did not even try to hide the fact that he doesn’t actually want to be in a position where he can’t evade tough questions or just hang up on you. “I’m not interested in organizing your Democratic rally,” he said to the constituent who asked him why he wasn’t holding an actual Town Hall.
Some highlights from the hour:
“The Senate threw us under the bus.” That’s a quote, not a paraphrase. He blamed “the Senate” (which — let’s just note — is also controlled by the Republican party) for the failure of the Obamacare repeal, for the lack of legislation (he listed out a bunch of stuff that’s been passed in the House), for basically anything that people didn’t like. “We’ve done our job in the House. We do, to be blunt, have a problem in the Senate” was another line I quoted at the time. Interestingly, he never named any names — just “the Senate,” like he was hoping that no one would remember that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader and the Republicans have a majority.
“The defenders of Obamacare stopped us.” Another quote. Yay! That made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
“Prohibition doesn’t work.” That was his response to a question about gun control. I had two thoughts on that. First, I was immediately curious about his stance on weed, if he thinks prohibition doesn’t work? (He’s actually got a decent stance on weed — he introduced legislation to leave it up to the states. So, kudos to him for that one.) I also would have liked to point out that bomb stores are not a thing, anyone who wants to make a bomb has to make it themselves out of parts that we have also made very difficult to get, and as a result, deadly bombings in the U.S. are incredibly rare. Not unknown, obviously, but genuinely rare. Prohibition works great with bombs, in fact. It also works great on guns in most of the rest of the world, including Australia, so. Yeah. This is bullshit.
He also got asked about the bill in the House to loosen up restrictions on silencers and got defensive and said this was a “health issue” (because hearing!) If I’d gotten the chance to ask him a question, one of the possibilities was why ear protection coverings are good enough for people who work with jackhammers for 8 hours a day but not good enough for people who shoot recreationally?
When he got asked about the fact that he was holding this virtual town hall at 11:50 a.m., a time when almost no working people were available (the citizens were overwhelmingly senior citizens — I could tell from their voices) and accused of cherry-picking Republicans, he said that he holds these at all times of day and that numbers are selected randomly. A couple of things about this: first, if these were livestreamed, made available in podcast form, etc., people might actual believe this. But also: how does he get these numbers? Because Lyda is not a resident of his district. She does, however, have a land line, and there are some restrictions on the types of cold-calls that can go to cell phones. If you’re making these calls exclusively to land lines, you may not be cherry-picking Republicans, but you sure as hell are cherry-picking people over the age of 40.
Shout-outs to Mary (who asked, regarding mass shootings, “How many more of these can you take before you stand up in front of the nation and say enough?”), Constance (from West St. Paul, whose nephew had to run a GoFundMe to cover his health care after he was beaten up because he had no insurance in his shitty non-Medicaid-expansion state, and who got hung up on as Jason insisted that “she seemed very partisan and doesn’t want a dialogue”), and Karen (who had an actual study showing that cutting taxes doesn’t boost the economy, and finished with, “I have listened to you hang up on a lot of people today. And I’m going to hang up on you. Because you’re pontificating and not listening.”) I just want to say, I appreciate all of you, you did good work today, and it did not escape my notice that the resistance, once again, is female.
If I’d gotten to ask my question, I was going to ask about the provision in the Republican budget proposal to no longer require bills to be scored by the CBO 28 hours before a vote (that doesn’t seem transparent, Mr. Lewis. How is anyone supposed to know if a bill will increase the deficit if you’re not going to have the office that checks this stuff, check this stuff?) and if he didn’t hang up on me, I was going to follow up by asking, if it would be good to file our taxes on a postcard, wouldn’t it be even better if we didn’t have to file taxes at all? (I mean, it’s possible — well, theoretically possible — that Jason Lewis isn’t in the pocket of Grover Norquist and Intuit. But that seems unlikely to me. But for real: the IRS already knows how much you made, where you live, who you’re married to, etc., so they could auto-deposit your refund, or send you a bill, and you could fill out your return only if you think they got it wrong or there’s some detail they don’t know. I’d probably still need to fill out a form, because of Schedule C: there’s a lot of stuff I get to write off against my writing income, and the IRS is not going to know how much I spent on printer paper or my laptop computer unless I tell them. But, for the vast majority of Americans, there is literally no reason to make you fill out a form, at all.)
Finally, here’s the contribution form for the MN-02 Democratic Nominee fund, which is raising money for Jason Lewis’s opponent. His most likely opponent is Angie Craig (who only barely lost in 2016) and if you’d like to just give directly to her, her website is here: https://www.angiecraig.com/
“I’m so glad you beat that Angie Craig,” said one of the Republicans Jason spoke with today. “She’s running again and she shouldn’t be able to do that. She can’t be allowed to win!” Jason Lewis won this district by 6,655 votes in 2016. This is an extremely swingable district.