By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau
TAKING QUESTIONS: North Daktoa Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, has claimed that she uses two typists to keep up with questions during social media events, but during a recent town hall event she didn’t get to several questions including one about Obamacare’s impact on college students.
FARGO, N.D. — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, has defended her use of social media for town halls as a better way to keep in touch with constituents.
But during a recent town hall on her official Facebook page, the senator appeared to skip over a question about Obamacare inflating health insurance costs for students.
That begs the question: Are virtual town halls a way for politicians to dodge the tough issues?
The North Dakota State University student who asked the question said Heitkamp likely wouldn’t have been able to do that if the event had been held in person.
“I had hoped that she would at least acknowledge my questions and maybe say something along the lines of ‘we’re looking at how to fix the issue’. But to ignore my question was ridiculous,” finance major Bryce Heustis told Watchdog via email after the event. “I was not satisfied that she cherry picked questions. She even replied to people who didn’t ask a question and just said ‘no question, but I love the job you’re doing as senator’ or something along the lines of that. It is very unprofessional and unstatesman to ignore the tough questions.”
Heitkamp promoted this latest Facebook event as a venue for questions about college affordability and student-loan debt.
Heustis’ question concerned the cost of his health insurance. He told the senator Obamacare had cost him $61 per month in a plan he purchased through a program sponsored by NDSU and that he’s since replaced it with a more costly $161-per-month plan.
“What changes do you support to the ‘Affordable Care Act’ that will help lower the costs of healthcare for thousands of college students across North Dakota who are on the NDUS healthcare plan?” he asked.
Heustis said he submitted his question in plenty of time to get an answer.
Watchdog captured a screenshot of the Facebook thread. In it, Heitkamp appears to answer questions submitted both before and after Heustis’, sometimes responding to questions from the same person more than once, but the question about Obamacare didn’t get a response.
This latest social media town hall comes amid an ongoing statewide debate over how politicians should communicate with voters.
Heitkamp falls in the middle between extremes set by the two Republican members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation when it comes to holding town hall events.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven has held just one town hall event since being elected in 2010. The event was sponsored by the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce with the group requiring an admission fee to get in.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, on the other hand, has held dozens of in-person town halls in communities across the state. He’s also held social media town halls on Facebook and Twitter and appears weekly on the What’s On Your Mind talk radio show, which is broadcast to radio stations in Bismarck, Minot, Fargo, Dickinson and Tioga.
Heitkamp previously has claimed she goes to great lengths to connect with constituents via social media, events she says are superior for that goal than in-person events.
“I think that social media is more accessible for the average North Dakotan,” she told the Minot Daily News in February.
She also told the newspaper the biggest challenge with social media town halls “was keeping up with the questions as they came in,” claiming she used two typists to input responses at a previous Facebook event.
During the Facebook event Heitkamp held Wednesday, there were 37 comments and questions posted. Heitkamp responded to 22. A picture posted with the question and answer thread showed Heitkamp sitting by herself at a laptop. A request for comment sent to Heitkamp spokesman Todd Deutsch, including a question about the use of typists to respond to questions during Wednesday night’s event, has gone unanswered.
Many of Heitkamp’s responses were short, consisting of just a sentence or an Internet link.
Contact Rob Port at firstname.lastname@example.org