A Raucous Town Meeting

If this morning's town meeting in Henrietta is an indicator, Randy Kuhl should lay in a supply of whatever over-the-counter medicine is indicated for immense pains in the ass. A lot of heat, and little light, was generated during the 80 or so minutes he spent on one of the first stops of his yearly 145-town listening tour.

The main topic on constituents' minds was Iraq. Of the twenty or so questions asked, well over half had to do with the war. One MoveOn.org representative delivered 150 letters to Kuhl from other 29th residents. Others held up signs with slogans like "You Backed Bush's Lie, Our Children Die". Singing of "Give Peace a Chance" wasn't evident, though grumbling and the threat of spontaneous outbreak of chants were omnipresent.

Kuhl calls these meetings "opportunities to listen." He says he's there to hear what his constituents have to say, not to argue or debate. At times, the full house at Henrietta Town Hall chafed visibly under that stricture, demanding that Kuhl justify his vote on the Iraq resolution. Kuhl stuck to his guns, saying that constituents who wanted to hear his explanations could correspond with him or schedule one-on-one meetings with him.

In coming posts, I'll deal with some of the specific issues raised at the meeting, but for now I'd like to comment on tactics.

Kuhl's treatment of these meetings as "one way" communication is an interesting gambit. For some of the more inflammatory questions, he flatly refused to respond to the questioner. Though he sometimes sounded like an Adlerian therapist ("How does that make you feel?"), the technique was pretty effective. After the first question on Iraq, Kuhl asked the speaker what that person thought should be done. The response was much less impassioned or certain than that person's earlier condemnation of the war. Kuhl caught this person flat-footed, because it is easy to complain about the war but it's harder to articulate an exit strategy.

I haven't attended any of Kuhl's other town hall meetings, but I have attended those of other Members, and Kuhl's refusal to answer questions is overly restrictive and sometimes verged on downright silly. In his defense, town hall meetings like these can easily devolve into debates that go nowhere, so a lot of structure is needed to make them effective. Nevertheless, Kuhl's holding the reins way too too tight. There needs to be a little give-and-take, or these meetings will become a charade. It's telling that Kuhl didn't even follow his own rule, since he answered some questions on less controversial topics, such as whether he co-sponsored a bill or his opinion on supporting VA hospitals.

What's lacking from Kuhl's listen-only position is a good alternative for constituents who want a more in-depth explanation of his views. Kuhl's stated alternative -- write me or meet with me and I'll tell you -- doesn't scale very well. He needs to come up with a better alternative to explain his votes on key legislation. It could be something as simple as a few more press releases or a couple of position papers posted to his website. If he did that before the next set of meetings, he could at least point to those instead of stonewalling.

Though it was probably little appreciated by some in the audience, Kuhl kept his good humor. He wasn't flustered and he wasn't rude, in sharp contrast to those who used the occasion to indulge in a little hamfisted political theater. I don't know if the people holding up protest signs were MoveOn members (I suspect they were), but no matter: they were a rude distraction that subtracted from the quality of the event.

The question I have for any MoveOn members who might be reading this blog is simple: Are you out for self-gratification, or do you want to win over Kuhl/undecided voters? If it's the latter, which I often doubt, then your tactics aren't getting the job done. Delivering letters en masse and holding up hand-lettered signs for the TV camera (that's right, just one, and it was only RNews) have little or no impact on the 3,000 voters you need to swing, or the thousands of non-voters you need to get to the polls. Those people aren't at town hall meetings, and they probably aren't paying attention to the anemic media coverage of these meetings. But they are looking for a reasoned, calmly-stated position on Iraq that doesn't talk about killing our children or involve hand-lettered, asinine slogans. That's not because the death of young people in this war isn't a worthy topic, but rather that it's all too well-known, and dwelling on it doesn't advance the conversation.

Of the behavior and discourse I saw at that meeting, by far the most intelligent and reasonable was that provided by Randy Kuhl and some of the participants who weren't obviously part of the MoveOn delegation. Some of the least persuasive and poorly phrased was provided by the stirred-up and righteous MoveOn group. When Kuhl did engage the MoveOn group, their responses were weak. I'm going to devote a future post on just one of the balls that was dropped, but there were many.

Also, the grumbling and cheap shots from the audience were distracting and sometimes offensive. For example, when a young man from Henrietta stood up and announced that he's joining the service with plans to go to Iraq, one of the people near me muttered "yeah, to die". If your righteousness burns in your heart with the glow of a thousand suns, so strongly that you aren't able to shut up for the short moment it takes for a brave young man say his piece, then you are no different from the "wingnuts" that you choose to hate. You are a zealot, and zealots do nothing but damage the political discourse, no matter which side they're on.

The 29th has been damaged enough by the completely tone-deaf politics of MoveOn. Part of the reason that Eric Massa lost the last election was the lazy, sloppy and expensive MoveOn ad that allowed Kuhl to put him on the defensive. The sloppiness of that ad was symptomatic of the general feeling I got this morning from the MoveOn group: We're so fucking right that we don't need to do our homework.

Well, guess what? Kuhl does his and he outfoxed you today.


Henrietta sounds much more turbulent than the town meeting I attended. Nobody came close to rudely confronting Randy. He did face respectful questions from several folks at odds with his positions. Randy’s assistant was chomping at the bit to end things after just 15 minutes, even though more people had questions. The meeting was scheduled for ½ hour but barely lasted 20 minutes. Kuhl spent most of his time expounding about his opposition to universal healthcare, and struggling to come up with a description of a guest worker program that his base wouldn’t label as amnesty. Make no bones about it. The guy is a career politician and pretty smooth at steering the conversation in the direction he wants it to take, whether that means deflecting responsibility to others in government or asking the questioner what their solution is.

I’m just back from attending my very first town hall meeting with Randy Kuhl. From the moment Kuhl started speaking I knew this was not going to be like any town hall meeting I had ever attended.

Kuhl jumps right into laying down the guidelines for the meeting. He tells the crowd this is not a forum for debate. He talks to the crowd about respecting each other. More than once Kuhl tells the crowd he is not present to answer questions, but he is there to gather information. Some of what he said put a huge smile on my face—not because I agree with his meeting tactics, but because he made me think about the “it’s not you, it’s me” episode of Seinfeld. But in this case, Kuhl repeatedly told the crowd the meeting was about our views and thoughts and not about Kuhl.

Kuhl even draws attention to the flyer that he sent out informing his constituents of his town hall meetings. He explains that the flyer carefully lets the public know how the meeting is to be used and how the public should conduct themselves. And finally, Kuhl made many references to the concept that his meetings are not “political”.

So many times Kuhl would agree with statements made by someone in the audience, which, on the surface, is rather odd since he is agreeing with progressive Democratic ideals. But while he may agree with many of the statements of the public, his voting record does not reveal this agreement.

So, while I sat quietly and listened to the many opinions of the audience, I began to realize that Randy Kuhl is terrified of true engagement with his constituents. Many times when a member of the audience pressed for a response from Kuhl, Randy would say this is not the forum to discuss the topic at hand. Kuhl suggested writing to him or requesting a meeting. But Kuhl then went on to blame the new rules of the Democratic majority in the house for screwing up his schedule and his ability to meet with his constituents. He is now required to be in Washington to conduct business and that is keeping him away from being in the 29th CD. It sounded like he was complaining and whining about having to work, which in turn shows he is out of touch with his hardworking constituents.

Possibly the most annoying aspect of the exchange between Kuhl and his constituents was Kuhl firing back questions after someone had just offered an opinion. One man suggested the focus on military action was a mistake when diplomacy was obviously needed. To hear Kuhl ask “what do you think we should do” meant his ears totally missed the suggestion of diplomacy.

Overall, I came away with the feeling that Randy Kuhl controls the ground rules for the town hall meetings specifically so there is no real engagement with members of the public. Because of his rules of disengagement, Kuhl will continue to be out of touch with the people he represents. Kuhl is just as out of touch now as he was when he was on TV in Elmira talking about how wonderful it is that our troops in Iraq get to eat lobster tails.

Anne: Randy's assistant wanted him to leave at 10 sharp in Henrietta, but Randy told him to wait and the meeting went long. It's interesting that he was willing to explain his positions at your meeting but not at Henrietta -- I think the "listen only" policy is applied when it looks like the crowd is pretty stirred up.

Hiwayman: I saw that you posted the same comment at rochesterturning. I don't think Randy is "terrified", but he is trying to keep a lid on things. There's a difference.

I was at the Town Hall meeting and I think you're being a little hard on Move On. These people ARE passionate and their hatred for the Bush administration and all who support it burns with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns, as does mine. Showing respect for a person who deserves none is not a noble action. It is possible to show respect for the office he holds without showing respect to the slimey, smarmy, skanky creep that he is. Where was HIS respect for Eric when he ran continuous negative adds showing Senior citizens in the cross hairs of a gun ? Where was his respect for his constituents when he vowed not to run a negative campaign and then did ? And where was his respect for the Service men and women when he voted against the Warner Resolution ? As for the "brave young man", Me thinks this young man wants to get into a military academy, where he needs Randy's recommendation to do so, so he doesn't have to enter the military as an enlisted soldier, but as an officer. I'd be sucking up to Perm-boy too.

Well, Carol, thanks for posting a comment that proves my point.

Your little character assassination of that young man is just flat wrong. He said that he would be in Iraq in "two years", according to my recollection and notes. If he were looking for a service academy appointment, he wouldn't be in Iraq until at least four years from now.

But don't let a little matter like a fact bother you. Just keep your boiling pot of anger stirring, and be sure to question the motivations of any and all who disagree with you. Make up stories if necessary, because your rightness justifies everything. But don't be surprised if your tactics don't get 3,000 voters to change their minds.

Speaking of respect, I respect that young man's decision, though I don't agree with it. I also respect him for standing up and saying something unpopular in front of an obviously hostile audience. That took some guts.

Did I make up a story ? We're not allowed any conjecture here? My rightness does not justify any more than your rightousness does. I posed questions, that's all.

Your comment contained a personal attack on someone who holds a position with which you don't agree, based on a false assumption. So, yes, I think that qualifies as making up a story. Calling it "conjecture" doesn't change that fact.

Also, I am a little prickly or righteous about the way that he was treated there, and also about your easy assumption that he was doing it to suck up. My impression was entirely the opposite.

You have no idea whether I agree with his position or not. He DID state he wanted to go to a military academy. I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone who wants to serve our country. I just suggested that there might be another side to his story. "Me thinks" does not mean "I know as a fact". I heard no one say anything derogatory towards him, or about him and I was only 2 rows back from you. My husband applauded him, as did many others around me.
"Perhaps" (not to be confused with "I know for a fact")it is not I with the anger issue.

You have no idea whether I agree with his position or not.

I assumed that someone who thinks that Randy Kuhl is a "slimey, smarmy, skanky creep", and who acknowledges that their hatred for the Bush Administration "burns with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns" might possibly disagree with Kuhl's position on the war. If I'm wrong, set me straight.

He DID state he wanted to go to a military academy.

My notes say that he's "interested in joining the military", and that he planned to be in Iraq in 2 years. That's not consistent with wanting to go to a military academy, which would get him to Iraq in 4 years plus.

And even if he did want to go to a military academy, does that mean he deserves to be sneered at?

I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone who wants to serve our country.

Insinuating that he was "sucking up" is something other than respect and admiration.

I just suggested that there might be another side to his story. "Me thinks" does not mean "I know as a fact".

You're right, it's an insinuation, not a fact.

I heard no one say anything derogatory towards him, or about him and I was only 2 rows back from you.

I heard what I heard and made a note of it. That's as factual as I can get.

My husband applauded him, as did many others around me.

Good for him. A lot of other people didn't and were grumbling while he was speaking.

"Perhaps" (not to be confused with "I know for a fact")it is not I with the anger issue.

Perhaps, but I can admit when I'm wrong about something.

You were wrong to make a casual insinuation about that young man, who did nothing more but stand up in a meeting and say something with which you (apparently) disagree.

Just because I disagree with his view of Randy doesn't mean I am going to personally attack him. I certainly can't argue with your notes, but I heard what I heard too. But, it is your website, after all and You can attack who you want, but don't let anyone else suggest ulterior motives. The Move-on people work tirelessly in their political activism, and you have no problem making them feel small, just because they go about it in a different way than you. So, I bow to your greater debating skills and your powerful notes and stand corrected for suggesting that a high school student may have reasons to compliment a very bad man.

I appreciate that the people who ally themselves with MoveOn do some hard work and are trying to change the system. Unfortunately, I think some of their tactics backfire and produce the opposite of the intended result.

Allow me to say I was sitting right next to Rott and I completely remember the grumbling and sneering at the young man's thoughts. It was WRONG

Rott, constructive criticism is good but your gripe with Moveon.org (well to me) is inflammatory and myopic. As show at the Henrietta meeting, striking the iron while the base is hot wins in my book. Kuhl was besides himself and had to resort to name calling and side stepping hard questions.

We should be blessed to have a vibrant activist presence in this region, and not shun it. Then again, its your blog and you can write whatever you damn well please.

I understand your passion to win which is awesome. I can sense it. In general, your points are spot-on about the average voter is apathetic and now coming around on the Iraq war. We have to work all ends of spectrum and not focus solely on liberals.

Keep on sharing your thoughts, as long its civil, don't hold back.

I should have some videos on RT from Henrietta sometime this week.

Sorry I missed your comment earlier. I posted a longer take on MoveOn yesterday. If you're interested, take a look and comment.

I think a constant video presence at Kuhl events is a very constructive thing to do, and I applaud you for it. It's more work that I'm willing to do.

That said, I still think the other MoveOn tactics, especially the disrespect in evidence at the Henrietta meeting, are counterproductive.

I still think Randy gets terrified when control appears to slip away from him and when he doesn't know whether to stick to his guns and refuse to answer questions or not.

I am a face watcher. I train my eyes on mouths, eyes and foreheads. I noticed several times Randy's lips because to quiver. I noticed several times when the wrinkles on his forehead get really noticeable. I see fear.

And what many are calling disrespect could really just be a sign of frustration.

I tried calling Randy's Fairport office to set up a meeting with Randy. I was told the Fairport office is not set up for holding meetings. I was told I could drive to Bath, but for some very, very odd reason, I was told that wasn't a good idea since it was a long drive. I explained that my parents live in Elmira and I travel that route all the time.

When the person in Fairport couldn't set a date for a Bath meeting, I was told they would call me back. They never called back.

I'm sure Kuhl is tense at those meetings. Perhaps he is fearful -- wouldn't you be? The question is what he does about his emotions, and he kept them under control. The real catastrophe for him would be to lose control at a meeting with cameras running. He was far, far from that. He did walk away from the camera afterwards, but he was in pretty good control during the meeting.

I agree that Kuhl's stonewalling is going to frustrate people, and expecting people to make appointments with him isn't a tenable access strategy. I'm sure your experiences will be felt by others.

But the grumbling and grousing while others were speaking is disrespect, no matter what the cause.

It's all relative, I guess. I didn't see much disrespect taking place when people were talking.

What I found most annoying was the child who just wouldn't be quiet.

Randy is a big boy in politics. Nothing happened at the meeting that he shouldn't have expected.

And always remember, Randy works for us. We pay Randy's salary. I think he owes us a meeting format that is acceptable to us.