Government By The People?

I follow Senator Lee on Twitter.  Every once in a while I'll get on and like some things, and retweet others.  I don't spend much time on Twitter.  Yesterday I was lucky enough to be online when an Mike Lee made an announcement that he will have a town hall the following day at 2:30 in Draper.  My job is fairly flexible as far as scheduling goes, so I moved some meetings around, carved out the time, and trekked down to Draper to do my civic duty.  I was there 15 minutes early.  

Prior to going, I replied and asked everyone what they think I should ask him.  I got a huge range of questions that were fantastic.  Everything from, "Can you explain why Rod Blagojevich was pardoned?" to "Why did he only provide 24-hour notice for a town hall taking place in the middle of the week in the middle of the day? Why not in the evening so working class people can attend?"  I felt privileged that others in the community who could not attend were sending their questions my way.

In the end, I decided to focus on something that could maybe move the needle.  I knew asking a question about Trump or something else would be easily deflected, so I crafted this question:

In your speech a few days ago honoring Seraph Young you said, "all persons should have the same legal right to be the equal of every other."  The House has passed a bill eliminating the expiration date on the Equal Rights Amendment.  70% of Utahns support the amendment.  When will you be presenting a bill to eliminate the expiration date so that this amendment can become operative?

His response was clear and unequivocal, "I won't be." 

I got out of my seat again and this time without a microphone asked, "The Utah constitution contains even stronger language than the Equal Rights Amendment.  Why shouldn't all citizens of the United States have the same rights as our women in this state?"  He replied with something to the effect that the 14th amendment already grants those privileges, and then something about abortion.  When I heard that, I jumped out of my seat again and said, "But the amendment doesn't mention abortion.  The words are literally the law applies equally to both..." a lady behind me, kindly touched my arm and said, "You've had your turn.  Let others go."  I knew I should let it go and give someone else a chance to ask a question.  I wasn't going to change his mind; regardless of the lack of reason behind his decision, I needed to let others ask their questions.

The town hall went back and forth between people clearly frustrated with the Senator and those happy with him. 

One moment that struck me was a girl in from Jordan High School who got up and emotionally asked why the senate sits on the bipartisan house resolution (HR 8) which requires background checks for any gun sale in the wake of the Parkland high shooting.  He danced around that question like a true politician.  

Another moment that will be etched in my memory was when an elementary school civics teacher recounted how each year she has her students write letters to the President.  This year her students, unprompted, wrote things like, "Can you please stop swearing?" Or "Can you please not bully people?"  She asked why Senator Lee doesn't stand up to him.  He again gave platitudes and hemmed and hawed: a true politician.  She put herself out there.  She referenced the children, who are our country's future.  The question meant something to her; he deflected.

Aside from a few questions, most weren't well rehearsed.  Whether they were or not, it was clear that the issues being asked about were meaningful to those asking the questions.  However, by giving short notice for the town hall meeting, senator Lee is not giving his constituents the opportunity to participate in government by the people.  It's a show: to check the box that he held a town hall.  So he may have done the thing, but not in a way that's meaningful or creates discourse.  It doesn't allow us to come to the meeting prepared or cool headed.  When short notice and high emotions combine they get in the way of a true civil discourse.

When I got there I noticed the demographic: white, middle aged to retired, obviously middle class.  There were maybe two or three mothers who brought their young children.  It was inconvenient.  The timing was difficult.  It was less than 24 hours notice and in the middle of the day, so working class people couldn't be there.  Anyone who works hourly certainly wouldn't have been able to attend. 

If Senator Lee wanted a true representation of his constituency, he would have planned differently.  He would have given us more notice.  He would have planned it at a time when more people could attend.  He would have accepted questions submitted ahead of time through social media.  He would have held it in Salt Lake City.  He didn't.  He wanted a safe audience. 

As it was, at least half the audience applauded those speaking out against Donald Trump.  At least half applauded issues that Democrats are championing right now. At least half applauded bipartisan gun control measures.  In a town hall meeting. In the middle of the day. In Draper. 

Senator Lee doesn't know us and he is not giving us a chance to be known.  If he wants to represent the people, he should give them a chance to represent themselves to him.

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