U.S.Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, addresses a crowd of about 60 people on Monday, April 17, 2017, at the Wilmer, Ala., senior citizens center during the first of 11 town hall events he’s hosting within a week. Byrne is among the 20 most prolific congressional lawmakers in hosting town hall events in the U.S., according to the website LegiStorm. (John Sharpfirstname.lastname@example.org).
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne had to repeatedly tell the crowd of about 60 at the Wilmer senior citizens center on Monday to "calm down" so that others could speak without interruptions.
For the most part, the audience obliged, even though jeering and groans were sometimes obvious as Byrne stated his positions on federal issues such as health care, school choice and tax reform.
Still, most seemed to be appreciative of the fact that their congressman showed up and spoke at a time when most of Alabama’s federal lawmakers are shying away from town hall events.
"Unlike some of your colleagues who won’t meet with their constituents, we are happy to see you are here," said Russell McKee, a Mobile County resident.
‘Hear from constituents’
Byrne has worked to make himself a familiar face in his 1st District since taking office in 2013. He says he’s held 77 town hall events.
Records from the website LegiStorm show that Byrne ranks in the Top 20 of all congressional lawmakers – House and Senate – in hosting town halls from Jan. 1, 2015 to April 17, 2017.
"People might not agree with me, but I like doing them," Byrne, R-Fairhope, said afterward. "This is a great way for me to hear from my constituents directly and a great way for them to hear from me directly."
This week, Byrne is hosting 11 town hall events throughout the southwest Alabama region. "We do 25 to 30 a year and that seems to be the right pace for us," said Byrne.
Byrne, though, has come under some fire for arranging an early March town hall event inside a limited-seating venue in Mobile. The event overwhelmed the 250-capacity community center, leaving about 200 or more people standing in the parking lot.
That town hall occurred at the same time as the GOP’s plans to repeal and replace ObamaCare were gathering steam. Since then, Republican efforts to alter former President Barack Obama’s signature legislation have fizzled, while other issues – such as President Donald Trump’s interest in tax reform, and foreign concerns in North Korea – have risen to the top of the priority list.
Byrne’s latest tour through his district will hit upon mostly small towns such as Brewton, Coden, Grove Hill and Wagerville. He’s also stopping by the larger cities of Daphne and Foley in Baldwin County.
Mobile is not part of his town hall tour this time, but he said that wasn’t meant as a snub.
"One of the things people who don’t live in Mobile complain about is that their representative tends to focus on Mobile and not on other places like Wilmer or Stapleton," said Byrne, referencing his two stops on Monday. "We go all over our district and have these town halls … We will go to every county in my district this week. I think that is important."
‘Doing your job’
Voters elsewhere in Alabama will have to travel to costal Alabama if they hope to speak with a federal lawmaker. Outside Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Hoover – appearing at town halls this week in Chelsea and Gardendale – none of the other members of the Alabama delegation is hosting town halls with constituents.
In the past, they’ve offered a variety of reasons. Rep. Roger Aderholt, R-Haleyville, for example, has said he prefers more one-on-one interactions with constituents and labeled the town halls as more of a platform for protestors.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, cited safety concerns and the 2011 shooting of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords as the reason he opted – earlier this year – not to host a town hall meeting.
Byrne, while not citing Brooks’ name, said there is no reason to be wary of hosting public events. "If you’re afraid of your constituents, you need to get another job," he said. "People can disagree with you. … That’s America."
Steve Flowers, a political columnist and commentator based out of Troy, expressed admiration for Byrne’s approach. "I’ve never seen anyone take to Congress like Bradley Byrne has," said Flowers. "He’s taken to Congress like a duck to water."
Flowers said Byrne, who is a conservative representing a deep red district, comes across as "even-keeled" compared to some others and that he seems better able to absorb and address any criticism.
"A lot of times, those Republican conservative congressmen are a little thin-skinned and are not as polished as Bradley is," said Flowers.
William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama, said Alabama, itself, does not have a tradition of town hall meetings. But, he said, it’s important for the public to interact with its representatives.
"People need to have the opportunity to express their opinions to their representatives," said Stewart. "If there are occasional disruptions, then that is part of the price of democracy."
According to the website LegiStorm, Byrne ranks among the most prolific town hall organizers since 2015 among 435 U.S. House members and 50 senators. His 49 in-person town hall events during the period put the Alabama congressman in at No. 19.
No other Alabama lawmaker ranks even close to that.
"I don’t think Alabama lends itself either less or more to town halls than other states; it’s more of a matter of a congressman’s personal style," said Quin Hillyer, a conservative columnist based in Mobile, who notes that a town hall meetings "take a lot of work" and "energy, both physical and mental."
"Any congressman who does more than, say, 10 or 12 per year, is really going the extra mile and deserves great credit for doing so," said Hillyer. "For Bradley Byrne to be in the Top 20 in the country is remarkable – and praiseworthy."
Of the Top 20 in the LegiStorm analysis from 2015-2017, 18 are Republicans and two – both Oregon lawmakers – are Democrats.
Since Trump’s Election Day victory, the Top 20 includes 12 Republicans and eight Democrats.
The most prolific in-person town hall host, by far, is Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. He has hosted a whopping 238 in-person town hall meetings since the start of 2015, and 73 since Election Day.
Byrne, when asked if he has any hopes of catching the front-runner someday, said: "I’ll let Congressman Sensenbrenner keep the record there."
Sensenbrenner, on his congressional website, said he schedules about 100 town hall meetings per year. "The process is never easy – sometimes it’s contentious – but if we listen and respect one another, I’m confident that at the end of the day, we will find ourselves in a better place than where we began," he said.