Closed-Door Policy

Prez's "town hall" audience was hand-picked

A school bus packed with senior citizens, young couples, and moms with toddlers in tow roars toward the Maple Grove Community Center, where another of President Bush's "town hall" meetings is about to kick off. The roughly 30 people onboard are decked out in marigold T-shirts with "Keep Your Hands Off My Social Security" emblazoned across the front. They've resorted to wearing the T-shirts to express their views, given the likelihood that they won't get to directly address the president. After all, they've been trying to get tickets for more than a week.

When the Medicare-themed event was announced 10 days before the president came to town on Friday, Minnesota United to Protect Social Security requested 30 tickets. Representatives from the group called both Sen. Norm Coleman and Rep. Jim Ramstad's offices, and essentially got the cold shoulder. The lack of response apparently echoed what has repeatedly happened at Bush's recent town hall meetings in Colorado, Arizona, North Dakota, and New Hampshire: Democrats and dissenters were denied access to the taxpayer-funded forums before even getting to the front door.

Carolyn Williams, a retired professor, knew the chances were slim that she'd get in. On June 7 she made the calls: Coleman's office said they didn't have tickets, and a man answering the phone at Republican Congressman Ramstad's office claimed he didn't know anything about the meeting, but he took her name and number and promised to call her back. He never did. "That to me is very frustrating," Williams says, adding that she told Ramstad's rep that she had heard of the event through MoveOn.org. "You have to have a certain viewpoint before you're granted access to public events."

So word apparently spread in the Ramstad and Coleman camps. On June 14, Adam Green, a representative of the MoveOn PAC, sent out an e-mail asking if anyone on the committee's local e-mail list, forwarded to City Pages, had received tickets. All 45 respondents had stories like Williams's.

But as the Star Tribune reported on June 18, a number of people attending the meeting said they received tickets from either Coleman's or Ramstad's offices. Lance Olson from Ramstad's office counters that staffers did the best they could do. "We only had 20 tickets," Olson maintains, adding that they tried to find senior citizens to attend. "We had hundreds of calls requesting tickets two weeks in advance. We did not get tickets until a day before the event, so it was not possible to call everyone back." The ones who received calls, presumably, were Bushies through and through--people who, Olson admits, had had face time with the congressman in the past.

Screening audience members is hardly a practice that one could pin only on Dubya, but the president has exercised the kind of caution that used to be reserved for planning warfare. Since the 2004 campaign, Bush's town hall meetings have been orchestrated, invitation-only PR vehicles open solely to staunch supporters. The idea is to punctuate Bush's speeches with softball questions and enough applause to help Bush, as he said at such an event last month, "catapult the propaganda." Howard Dean, along with Republican and Democratic congressional reps from the states where there have been lockouts, are crying foul, calling the closed-door gatherings un-American and a disservice to the democratic process.

On March 21, Alex Young and two friends were ejected from a Bush town hall meeting in Denver. Since the incident, the Secret Service has admitted that a Republican Party staffer removed the group solely because they arrived in a Saab that had a "No Blood for Oil" sticker on its bumper. Young, who is meeting congressional members in Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue, says: "Our case is similar to the misleading going on in Minneapolis. We think it's important for the White House to come forward about these increasingly common violations of the Constitution and the public trust."

At the end of it all, those who were barred from the town hall meeting are left to wonder why taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for events where they're not welcome. "They shouldn't call them town halls," Williams says. "That word involves a meeting of the minds to discuss current issues. They should call them rallies."

 
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