The job of a North Dakota lawmaker isn’t over on Friday when they return from Bismarck to their districts. The men and women elected to make our state’s laws are expected to meet with their constituents and participate in public forums organized by local organizations like a Chamber of Commerce or Rotary group.
One such event this weekend got a little heated, all the more so when a Republican lawmaker in attendance expressed some frustration on social media afterward.
Senator Scott Meyer of District 18, who enraged North Dakota progressives with an upset victory over a long-time Democratic lawmaker which he bragged about on Fox News, described a forum hosted by the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce as a “pontification festival” on Twitter.
Meyer’s post was retweeted by fellow Republican Jake Blum, a state representative from District 42 who enraged the state’s progressives by unseating titular Democratic chairwoman Kylie Oversen.
Democrats saw this tweeting and pounced, rushing to the media with press release denouncing Meyer and Blum for expressing (the latter indirectly) a mild bit of frustration with an event that was apparently long on ranting and short on discourse.
“Meyer and Blum complaining that they had to listen to their constituents’ concerns speaks volumes about the level of respect they feel toward the people they purport to represent,” Robert Haider, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, said in a statement.
Meyer has since deleted the original tweet and apologized:
I sincerely apologize for my tweet yesterday. Good communication is important, and mine was poor at best. I promise to do better.
— Scott Meyer (@scottallenmeyer) February 19, 2017
This is the silliest of controversies. Anyone who has ever attended this sort of political forum knows how tiresome they can be. There are often some very good questions and discussions, but they are also often abused by gadflies and cranks and sometimes even political operatives out to goad a given politician into saying something controversial.
A SAB reader who was in attendance at this particular event told me that it was a mess. There was supposed to be a one minute time limit for questions, but it was completely ignored. Afterward one of the lawmakers was apparently called a “fascist” by an attendee.
But the motivations and antics of those attending these forums don’t matter. It is incumbent upon the politicians to accept the slings and arrows. It’s part of the job, and you can’t complain about it. Because any sort of griping, no matter how justified, will be perceived as coming from a politician dismissive of the will of the people.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]North Dakota Republicans need to tread carefully. They cannot afford to be perceived as indifferent to their constituents. They cannot allow small factions of angry progressive activists, or ranting gadflies, to set the narrative.[/mks_pullquote]
And perception, in politics, is reality.
North Dakota Democrats should know a thing or two about this. Back circa 2009 their party held every single seat in the federal Congressional delegation. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, along with Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, were a political success story. They called themselves “Team North Dakota.”
But in 2009 after, after President Barack Obama was elected, they ran into mobs of angry constituents at town halls around the state.
Conrad handled them poorly, getting hostile with attendees and walking out of at least one event in Mohall.
Pomeroy tried to control the town halls by doing them only through conference calls. It made it look like he was hiding from his constituents.
Dorgan didn’t bother to hold any town hall events at all.
You’ll notice that while all of these men are still active in American politics none of them hold elected office in North Dakota any longer. In 2010 Dorgan opted not to run for a new term while Pomeroy was soundly defeated in the election. In 2012 Conrad also chose to retire.
Those town halls weren’t the only factor for the demise of “Team North Dakota,” but I’d argue they were, at the very least, the beginning of the end.
Which is why North Dakota Republicans need to tread carefully. They cannot afford to be perceived as indifferent to their constituents. They cannot allow small factions of angry progressive activists, or ranting gadflies, to set the narrative.
What Republicans ought to do is emulate one of their own. Congressman Kevin Cramer has held hundreds of town halls since his election in 2012, some of them on talk radio shows (including mine) while others are in person. These are wide open events, and anyone who has participated in one knows Cramer often gets his share of zingers and attacks.
But he handles them with aplomb, happily parrying the rhetorical bombs thrown by his critics while simultaneously doing his best to answer honest questions.
That openness has been key to Cramer’s success as a Congressman, earning him the grudging respect of even some of his most ardent critics.