What’s a real town hall? Denham and Harder quarrel persists

Just what constitutes a town hall meeting has become yet another bone of contention in the race between Rep. Jeff Denham and challenger Josh Harder.

Harder, a Democrat, insists he would be more responsive and accessible than the Republican incumbent, accusing Denham of not holding a real town hall in 17 months. To draw a contrast, Harder’s camp since July has been hosting a series of 16 town halls leading up to the November election, and all are filmed for viewing after on his Facebook page.

Denham responded in August by labeling as town halls some of his many public appearances.

But Harder has continued repeating the “no public town hall” charge against Denham in multiple recent campaign events and notices. He questions whether events that don’t seem open to everyone can be called town halls.

So what is a town hall meeting? Simply put, it’s an event where a public official or politician answers questions from the audience.

That’s what Denham did in April 2017 at an appearance in Denair, where he told hundreds of people he would not vote to repeal Obamacare health benefits relied on by about 100,000 of his constituents. When Denham did the opposite shortly after in Washington, D.C., Harder was handed a major plank to his platform.

“This is somebody who is clearly so ashamed of his voting record that he doesn’t want to stand in front of his constituents,” Harder said.

Denham vehemently disagrees. His campaign provided his schedule showing some 40 public appearances during a three-week period in August, when Congress was not in session.

“We have a lot of ways to reach out and talk to people,” said Denham, whose August events ranged from ribbon cuttings and tacos with veterans to a graduation ceremony for new Modesto Police officers. He also spoke at a rally in Sacramento attended by 1,500 Valley residents protesting the state’s proposed water grab, which Harder skipped.

Denham hosts a jobs fair every summer, held Aug. 2 this year, that’s publicized in every newspaper in the 10th District, which covers Stanislaus County and the south part of San Joaquin County. He also went to various summer parades in Modesto, Ceres, Patterson and Tracy. Denham holds quarterly telephone sessions with as many as 6,000 callers at a time, and he said he responds to constituents’ email and letters during regular long flights between California and Washington, D.C.

Denham’s people say at least four of those 40 August events meet the definition of town hall: an Aug. 7 presentation to the Latino Community Roundtable in Modesto, an Aug. 14 Q-A session with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a barn near Salida, a forum that night at The House church in Modesto, and an Aug. 20 forum at the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau in Stockton. He answered questions at all.

Were those true town hall meetings? Or closely controlled events screened by Denham’s people and filled with friendly audiences?

“You should not just talk to one small subset or slice of the district,” Harder said. “A simple condition should be letting every single member of the community come. Ask any engaged person when was the last time Jeff Denham took a question from the public and they will tell you it’s over 505 days ago (since Denair). You can’t hold something behind closed doors and not tell anybody about it and say it’s a public appearance.”

The Latino Community Roundtable charged $20 for its Denham event, but provided a table for people who didn’t buy tickets. Notice of the Perdue event was provided to the press less than a day before, and Denham acknowledged that word spread mostly through farm bureaus which have been strong supporters. Harder did not attend either forum, saying audiences would be stacked in Denham’s favor, and essentially dismissed all of Denham’s town halls as dog and pony shows.

Is Harder wrong?

“It’s irrelevant to me,” Denham said. “I’m not going to get bogged down by petty politics and games. The issues we’re fighting for are too important.”

Two political science instructors, one each from California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock and University of the Pacific in Stockton, separately said both candidates can be right on this issue.

“I don’t think there is any set standard for what a town hall is,” said David Colnic, chairman of Stanislaus State’s political science department. “If Harder convinces constituents that Denham is running away, Harder’s definition wins. If (people agree with Denham) that he’s having these town halls, some over the phone, and ‘I’m meeting with this and this organization,’ he wins.”

Keith Smith, a UOP associate professor, agreed that the question depends on who’s asking. He also said Denham’s approach is understandable, and consistent with how many facing re-election conduct their campaigns.

“Denham knows if he holds a town hall, he’ll have a lot of Democratic activists who will try to make a ruckus,” he said. “He has no incentive to do it, and honestly, it would be a little silly. There is no incentive for an incumbent, especially if he stands to lose something, to do those kinds of events. It’s all risk and no reward.”

Denham said, “Is the subject really town halls, or is it, am I open, active and available to constituents?”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390