Republicans learning to love the telephone town hall

Guest blogger and Columbian reporter Howard Buck strikes again:

Different year, a different mood, different subject area, to be sure.

But, interesting to see who’s embraced the telephone town hall that many right-wingers (and others) so loudly denounced only 18 months ago. (Brian Baird and health care reform, anyone?)

We got a call the other day from state Sen. Don Benton, R-Pleasant Valley, quite tickled with just such an event he’d hosted Jan. 20 for 17th Legislative District constituents.

His office had contacted about 18,000 households to let them know they could listen and ask questions from 7 to 8 o’clock that evening, he said.

It appears about 2,500 constituents did dial in, for at least part of the hour, with a steady audience of “probably 500 or more,” he said. That’s way larger than most actual town hall crowds, and callers left Benton 50 or 60 messages with questions or opinions he was still sifting through, he said.

The state budget deficit, the Columbia River Crossing – interest ranged across many topics.

“The feedback was just phenomenal,” Benton gushed. “The participation is much greater than any live town hall I’ve done. It’s just a much more efficient, more personal way to interact.”

Of course, necessity is the mother of… you know the phrase: In the face of a monster budget deficit, Olympia legislators in December voted to slash their own administrative costs, including non-campaign “constituent mailings” on the taxpayer dime (senators agreed to shutter their dining room, even!). And so, reaching voters back home will require more creative efforts this year.

That’s how a staunch Republican such as Benton comes to crow over a telephone chat, as cost-effective quality time. As one Senate GOP caucus employee told us, lawmakers have fast overcome their reservations: “People really love ’em. You get to ask hard questions, it makes it easier for people to participate. It’s kind of taking democracy to that new, 21st century level,” the staffer said.

Contrast this with outrage vented after Baird dared dial up constituents, rather than meet face-to-face, during the white-hot health care debate in August 2009: Ryan Hart, Clark County Republican Party chairman, said “Baird should be ‘ashamed and embarrassed,’ ” The Columbian reported at the time.

To listen to Benton’s recent town hall, check the link at:

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