'Town brawls' have California reps rethinking how to reach out

WASHINGTON — Congressional town hall meetings can now be a contact sport, prompting San Joaquin Valley lawmakers to try different strategies for meeting with constituents.

All five congressmen who represent the area between Stockton and Visalia are conversing with voters throughout the August recess. Not everyone, though, is holding the kind of wide-open health care dialogue that's grown unruly elsewhere.

"It's just a hot issue," Rep. Devin Nunes. R-Visalia, said Thursday

Some lawmakers are holding traditional town halls. Some are meeting with select groups. Some, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, are emphasizing targeted meetings and telephone conference calls.

"He is making himself accessible to his constituents in many large group settings, which will be much more productive than the town halls which, these days, only serve as venues for those who only wish to disrupt a serious discussion of the issues," Cardoza's press secretary, Mike Jensen, said Thursday.

Telephone conference calls, often dubbed telephone town halls by congressional offices, have become one popular alternative.

On Wednesday night, separate telephone town halls were convened by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton. McNerney drew about 5,000 participants, from a congressional district that stretches from Manteca to Morgan Hill, according to spokeswoman Sarah Hersh.

Radanovich's policy counsel, Tricia Geringer, said that roughly 3,500 residents of Modesto, Turlock, Madera and Fresno participated during at least part of Radanovich's hour-long program Wednesday.

"People like it," Geringer said. "It's a good opportunity to be involved."

Jensen said Cardoza conducted similar telephone sessions in June and July, drawing 4,280 participants in the first program and 5,231 in the second.

Telephone town halls enable lawmakers to reach large audiences at once, and also to exert maximum control. There are no insulting placards or alluring cameras to interfere with civility. Questions can be screened. On Wednesday, Geringer said, Radanovich fielded several dozen questions.

By contrast, in-person public sessions potentially leave lawmakers more vulnerable. Some raucous sessions have become YouTube and cable television sensations.

On Thursday, at a site yet to be determined in Clovis, Nunes plans a public session to walk constituents through the current House health care package, which reached some 1,017 pages before being narrowly approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Aug. 1.

"This is an issue that's complicated, and for the first time we're getting really thoughtful e-mails and questions, as we should," Nunes said.

The possibility of a public flare-up is also drawing more media attention, like the three television camera crews that showed up Thursday for a Fresno event where Nunes spoke.

Radanovich wants to schedule a town hall meeting by this fall, Geringer said.

Like Cardoza, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, does not have any town hall sessions planned. Both Democrats have been participating in numerous constituent meetings; for instance, with health care professionals.

"We do have a variety of health care meetings scheduled," Costa's press secretary, Bret Rumbeck, noted Thursday, citing several sessions set for next week.

Costa was to have participated in a Fresno health care forum on Aug. 7, but University of California at San Francisco organizers abruptly canceled it, citing scheduling conflicts.

In recent days, other Democrats have reconsidered their town hall decisions. Notably, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., apologized late Wednesday for referring to protesters' "brown shirt" tactics and in a turnaround declared he would now hold five town hall programs in coming weeks.

"My hope and trust is that we can have the kinds of informative exchanges that I have valued for so long and that reveal the very best of public discourse," Baird said."