God, I hated one of the answers Senator Jon Tester gave at his public town hall in Helena today.
Responding to a thoughtful question from a high school student about the connection between Montana’s nation-leading suicide rate and our rate of firearms ownership, Tester opened with the line that he owns “more guns than he needs but fewer than he wants” before moving into some sensible advocacy for increased funding for mental health and ending the federal funding freeze on gun violence research.
But he never said what I would have wanted to hear: that our gun culture and easy access to guns make suicide attempts far more fatal in Montana than in other states and that we need to reconsider our love affair with the “tools” that make our schools, workplaces, and homes so much less safe than their counterparts in the rest of the developed world.
Jon Tester and I will never agree on guns. And I’m quite certain that Tester will never agree with the young man who called for open borders begin Mexico and the United States or the woman considering moving to Montana who asked about geoengineering as a means to combat climate change, but what Senator Tester did today was to respectfully listen to twenty-four unscripted, unscreened questions about topics ranging from impeachment to the Trump Administration’s efforts to move Department of Agriculture scientists before offering his candid take, whether that meant identifying bills that could help alleviate problems or admitting that he’d need to do more research.
For an hour, Senator Tester reminded the 100 people from Helena who gathered that members of Congress are supposed to represent their constituents and that the only way to do that is to listen to them, even when he disagrees with them. For an hour, it was politics the way it used to be in a better time: the chance for some one-on-one exchanges between our Senator and the people he represents.
Tester’s town halls offer incredible contrast with the cowardly refusal of Senator Steve Daines and Representative Greg Gianforte to meet with constituents at publicly-announced open forums where anything can be asked. Both prefer the comfort of hiding behind tele-townhalls where they can screen questions they don’t want to answer and will never have to face an audience member talking back when the don’t tell the truth. Both prefer sneaking into communities to speak to handpicked audiences of people who already agree with them, further sealing themselves off from the hundreds of thousands of Montanans who see the world differently than they do, but they are supposed to represent nonetheless.
Daines has been especially contemptuous of Montanans who simply want to express their views. Last March, he told Montana Public Radio that he doesn’t hold face-to-face meetings with constituents because they’re just loud protesters not engaged in civic discourse:
The town hall that you hear about is, we, are coming primarily with some of the resistance movements, frankly from the pretty far left folks in the state that’s who is making the loudest noise. It reminds me back when the Tea Party movement was going back in the 2010, 11, I can tell ya, Jon Tester wasn’t holding town halls with the tea party groups. And I think it’s just, they tend to be big protests versus good, civil discourse on the issues facing our country.
I would tell Senator Daines that if he ever held a town hall, he likely learn that just isn’t true and that his cowardice is no excuse for his contempt for Montanans. Today, Senator Tester was asked some difficult questions from people who cared passionately about the issues facing the nation. There were no big protests and no yelling matches, just the kind of civic discourse we need a hell of a lot more in this state and in this country.
Daines and Gianforte don’t want to have town halls because they don’t want to have to defend their votes to gut Medicare, to massively expand the deficit to give themselves a tax break, to arm the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia and countless more. They’re afraid, both of the people in this state and truth about their legislative record getting out to those people.
Will they keep cowering as each runs for re-election in 2020? Almost certainly, but maybe it’s time to ask your Republican friends why in the world they’d vote for people who won’t even sit down with their constituents and hear their concerns.
Thanks, Senator Tester, for listening to and speaking to us in Helena today. It was a useful reminder that our political system can–and must–do better.