Heard on the Hill

The King of Town Halls Reflects on Face Time

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner talks about the mood of constituents, the most interesting questions and his smallest crowd

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner talks with some of his constituents in Watertown in February. (Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner via Instagram)

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is the king of town halls.

The Wisconsin Republican, who was first elected to the House in 1978, held the most of any member of Congress last year, when he racked up 115. Since 2011, he has held more than 500 meetings with constituents.

“I can say that generally the crowds at the town meetings are either people who are active in political parties or ideological movements or people who come and are seeking information about something they are confused about,” he said.

But the mood of late can be hostile, and that’s made meetings tougher.

Sensenbrenner said he has noticed that “people’s blood pressure gets up when they’re talking about public policy issues now.”

He cut short two meetings over the last year after things got heated and the crowd began yelling. Before that, he had adjourned only one meeting early — in 2011 — when the group was aggressively discussing a Wisconsin state issue.

“That’s something that concerns me about the future of American politics. If we can’t respect others’ opinions … we’re going to be damaging democracy and we’re going to be damaging the type of respect that’s kept this country together,” he said.

HOH asked him to share some highlights:

Smallest crowd: One. “It worked out just fine. He and I didn’t agree on the issue of net neutrality, but we talked for half an hour on it. I make it a point not only to go to big communities, but also small ones.”

Largest crowd: “During the Clinton impeachment, I had about 500 at town meetings. Last year, because of people both supporting and opposing the Trump agenda, I had about 5,000 attendees [total in 115 town halls].”

[Have Gavel, Will Travel]

Strangest question: “There was one woman who came in complaining bitterly that the mailman wouldn’t put the mail on the top of the stairs but put it in the mailbox. She was too lazy to go downstairs to pick up her mail. Usually I find out when people go off the page like this woman did, the rest of the crowd starts moaning and groaning.”

Youngest participant: “I got a question in Hartford, Wisconsin, on Sunday [June 3] from a grade-schooler relative to a piece of legislation that mandated research at the NIH on a very, very rare disease.”

Recent popular topics: “There was a lot of talk about health care. There were either people who supported Obamacare or people who hated it and wanted it repealed and replaced. As time has gone on, the public has been more ideologically polarized. This is reflective of Congress, as Congress has become more ideologically polarized as well.”

Do you ever not have an answer? “Oh yeah, that happens all the time. If I can’t answer it, I make people sign in on sign-in slips so I have the sign-in slip with name and address [to send them a response].”

Ever have a quiet crowd? “The people who decide to come are rarely quiet.”

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