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Cravaack uses "tele-town hall" to meet with constituents

Freshman congressman Chip Cravaack held a town hall meeting with about 9,000 of his constituents this week and never set foot in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.

Chip Cravaack
Chip Cravaack (File / News Tribune)

Freshman congressman Chip Cravaack held a town hall meeting with about 9,000 of his constituents this week and never set foot in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.

Instead, Cravaack, R-Lindstrom, used relatively new technology available to members of Congress to make calls to tens of thousands of residents across his home district.

The unsolicited and unannounced calls went out about 7 p.m. Monday night. About 12,000 people from North Branch to Northome answered the call, and 9,000 of them stayed on the line "for at least a few minutes, if not the whole call," said Shawn Ryan, Cravaack's spokesman.

The average person was interested enough to stay on the line 15 minutes, Ryan noted.

The "tele-town hall meetings" have been around about five years, Ryan said, and help members of Congress keep in touch with huge numbers of constituents without having to travel. They are new to Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, however, because Rep. Jim Oberstar, Cravaack's predecessor, didn't use them.

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Members of Congress now are using more tools than just snail-mail letters to reach constituents -- they're turning to Facebook, Twitter, e-mail alerts and websites all to keep their names in front of voters and to find out what voters are concerned about.

But even those tools still require voters to be proactive and "opt-in" to the communication or to agree to be on a list. With tele-town hall calls, the registered voters who are called don't know the call is coming. And some people probably were surprised to get the call Monday, thinking they were off-limits to unsolicited calls.

"We are sensitive to that. But people can always just hang up, and we are sorry for any inconvenience," Ryan said.

"We're still going to do the traditional communications (newsletters and news releases) and we are definitely going to do traditional town hall meetings inside the district," Ryan said. "But to be able to talk with 9,000 constituents in an hour and not have to pay for travel, that's a pretty good bang for the buck."

The phone calls are legal (do not call lists do not apply to Congress), although if the unsolicited calls go out to 500 or more people they must be approved by the House Franking Commission. The commission, a bipartisan committee of Democrats and Republicans, wants to know what the outgoing message is and what any message is that will be left on answering machines if no one answers.

The cost of the calls (Ryan wouldn't say how much) comes out of Cravaack's office budget for communications, the same as if a letter were mailed to all constituents.

"But this allows great interaction, not just one-way communication," Ryan said. "And we don't have to pay for stamps."

The lawmakers also don't have to deal with inclement weather, renting halls or pesky reporters or hecklers showing up.

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Troy Young, communications director for Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who represents parts of southeastern Minnesota, said they have used tele-town halls since 2006, calling out five to 10 times each year. Congressmen are allowed to use voter registration lists, but can't pick and choose whether they are calling Democrats, Republicans or independents, Young said. The calls also can't be used to solicit money or make political statements.

"It's a lot like a call-in radio show, except we don't have a producer screening the calls. If you are high enough on the (call-in list) you are going to get your question answered," Young said, noting Kline himself cues-up the next call using his laptop computer in his office in Washington.

Young said one woman was so excited to be talking with a congressman, she stayed on the line even while she was dusting the house waiting to ask her question. He said they usually target specific geographic areas rather than the entire district.

"It's getting to be a more and more popular way to reach people and allow instant feedback," Young said, noting Kline conducted an unscientific poll among callers this week on health care. "We held a (physical) town hall meeting last winter and had about 50 people show up. ... This way we can get thousands every time. And we've had an overwhelming response."

Cravaack used a company called i-Constituent. Another, Tele-Town Hall LLC, has been doing the call-outs with dozens of representatives and senators since 2005.

In Cravaack's call Monday, a recorded voice started the conversation asking people if they wanted to stay on the line for a chat with Cravaack. The actual tele-town hall started with a short opening remark by Cravaack that focused on health care (mainly Cravaack's support for repealing last year's health-care legislation) and the government's budget deficit. (People who didn't answer were left a recorded message on why Cravaack had called.)

Then listeners could follow a prompt to ask a question. When their time came up, a moderator handled the connection (Paul from Proctor, go ahead with your question to Chip Cravaack), everyone on the call could hear the question and Cravaack's answer.

The roughly 50-minute call attracted 45 questions and Cravaack was able to get to 16, Ryan said. Those who still had questions could submit them to an answering machine for a follow-up answer from Cravaack's staff.

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The town halls aren't recorded, Ryan said, because it would require permission from the people participating in the call, and might affect someone's willingness to ask questions.

"That's generally the practice," he said.

There probably will be more calls from Cravaack in coming months, Ryan said. The technology also can allow a limited number of people to call in to the events if they are publicized in advance.

"We didn't advertise it at all before because we weren't sure how well it would work," Ryan said. "But it seemed to go very well."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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