Last night Congressman Rodney Davis held a tele-town hall meeting. If you’re unfamiliar with tele-town halls, here’s how they go: the phone rings, you pick up and say hello, a recording tells you to stay on the line if you want to be conferenced in. At that point you will be able to listen in to what is essentially a canned speech, followed by moderator selected questions.

But before we get into the call itself, it’s helpful to have some context. For weeks, voters have been asking Rep. Davis to hold an in-person town hall. The responses from Davis’s campaign vary (he’s too busy, he doesn’t do those, the people asking are “the opposition”, etc.) but at the end of the day amount to a firm “no.”  For a historical point of comparison, Representative Davis’s predecessor (also a Republican) held 10-12 in-district town halls a year. For a more modern comparison, there are currently over 300 town halls or in-person events scheduled by representatives across the political spectrum.

So after weeks of frustration, voters were surprised to see an announcement that he would be holding a tele-town hall, but no information was given regarding time/date. Eventually, Davis’ office came out and said it would be Wednesday night, but didn’t provide information regarding the time. The only way individuals were able to get that information was to call Rep. Davis’s offices. Initially voters were told it would be sometime after 6:30 or 7. Then on Tuesday his staff were saying it would be between 6 and 8. It turned out to be 5:50. In hindsight, this was the first sign that things would not be going as planned.

To start, and though we don’t know the exact numbers, a significant portion of those that signed up for the call did not receive one. This may be related to an issue that many of those that signed up were reporting regarding a lack of confirmation e-mails from Davis’s team.  As it was with the schedule, the only way to get confirmation was to call Davis’s offices (noticing a pattern yet?)

So let’s say you were lucky enough to get the call. Smooth sailing from there, right? Unsurprisingly, no. Again, we can’t know the exact numbers, but reports of voters answering the phone only to receive a message of “sorry we missed you!” are widespread (I was one of those people).

Alright, so you were lucky enough to get the call, and you were lucky enough to get into the call. What happened next?

Well, you got to spend the next 10 minutes being lectured on the evils of Obamacare by Rep. Davis and his last-minute addition to the call, Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas. Who is Rep. Burgess, and why was he on the call? Good question! As I mentioned above, it’s important to note that up to the last few hours before the call, nobody knew Rep. Burgess would be included. That extends to Rep. Davis’s staffers at his Champaign office as well, who when asked why Rep. Burgess was included responded with “I didn’t know he would be on the call”.  However, when I called the DC offices, the staffer assured me this wasn’t a last minute addition and that this was the plan all along. According to that staff member, Rep. Burgess was included to answer questions regarding the repeal of the ACA. Why Rep. Davis needs help answering those questions is beyond me. He’s been VERY vocal about his support for the repeal, and has introduced a piece of healthcare legislation himself, so you would think he understood the issue well enough to handle answering questions. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

As far as Rep. Burgess himself, and why Rep. Davis’s staff felt he was the best choice, that’s a mystery. Rep. Burgess was a former physician, but hasn’t practiced since 2002. He literally has no idea what it’s like to practice medicine under the ACA. The people that do? They are unequivocally against its repeal. The American College of Physicians has been outspoken in its desire to see the law remain in place, and in a recent poll of primary care physicians, roughly 85% want it to stay. So why would Rep. Davis invite someone like Burgess, someone that no longer practices medicine, and represents the opinion of the overwhelming minority of physicians on the issue? Perhaps it was Rep. Burgess’s comments about fetal masturbation that won over Davis and his team? (yes, he actually said that). Burgess only hung around for a half hour, and I do want to commend him for that. It can’t be easy doing both his job and Rep. Davis’s.

The entire call lasted just under an hour, and according to Davis’s staff roughly 8000 people were on the call.  Over that hour we heard about 10 questions asked and answered. Now, I want to take a second here to commend Davis’s staff for allowing some of these questions through. Many of us were expecting a tightly moderated call where he’d only receive softballs, but his staff clearly made the decision to let people ask very tough questions, so they deserve a lot of credit.

As far as how Congressman Davis answered them….that didn’t go as well. His answers to questions on health care tended to retread popular conservative talking points, and didn’t do much to demonstrate that he had any working knowledge of the system. It became clear very quickly that this is why Rep. Burgess was thrown in at the last minute. He also doesn’t seem to understand how his own bill to cover pre-existing conditions works. The things he claims to dislike about the ACA (rising premiums, shrinking choices) are the same outcomes we can expect if his bill were to be passed. For a more in-depth look at why exactly that is, you can check out another article I wrote specifically about his bill.

I don’t want to be completely dismissive of Rep. Davis’s answers, because he did answer some questions somewhat satisfactorily. His answer to a question regarding further investigation into Russia was refreshing. He is now on the record saying he supports bipartisan investigation into Russia’s involvement in our elections as well as their ties to Donald Trump. I hope he sticks to that promise, and I hope his constituents support him in that endeavor.

He also told some whoppers, here are the big ones:

- He said the ACA has decreased the solvency of Medicare. The opposite is true.

- He said he promotes the use of clean coal technology. There’s no such thing.

- He said he’s the most bipartisan member of congress. He’s voted with the party 100% of the time.

- He said he didn’t know what podcast a caller was talking about when asked about dismissive comment he made about his constituents and their complaints. Here it is.

Overall, the tele-town hall was an unsatisfactory response to a request hundreds of thousands of his constituents have been making for weeks. Rep. Davis is clearly hoping these tele-town halls shut everyone up. He can control what questions get asked, he doesn’t have to worry about follow-up, and he can pretend like he’s reaching out to his voters without actually doing it. These are great for him, but bad for his constituents. As you heard in the call last night though, Rep. Davis will tell us what’s best for us, and what he thinks is best for us is detached and tightly controlled interaction over the phone, where a fraction of a percentage of us can have our voices heard, and he can dodge, lie, and mislead in a completely safe environment.

What’s this all boils down to is that all the excuses, all the avoidance, all the dismissiveness by Rep. Davis is intended to save him from embarrassing himself in an actual discussion where people can actually hold him accountable and ask follow-up questions. He’s afraid. He sees what other representatives have experienced at their town halls recently, and he doesn’t think he can handle one of his own. I think he’s probably right.

Opening yourself up to potentially contentious debate is part of the job when you represent a diverse district like ours. Rep. Davis likes to repeat ad-nauseum that “we won’t always agree on everything, but we need to work together regardless” and then turns around and says he won’t hold a town hall because people just want to come and disagree with him.

When you stand up and say “I want to represent you,” you’re making a promise. Not just to the people that voted for you, but to EVERYONE that lives in your district. If the best you can offer answering 10 questions over the phone every couple of months, I’m not sure who exactly you think you’re representing.

Ultimately, the tele-town hall is an increasingly popular tactic of the increasingly unpopular representative. Rep. Davis knows this, and he’s hoping that if he does enough of them you won’t.