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Without Paulsen, Plymouth town hall meeting draws hundreds

The following article by Erin Golden was posted on the Star Tribune website February 23, 2017:

Town hall drew a crowd without the congressman.

About 600 people frustrated with U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen packed into Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth on Thursday while a few hundred more waited outside.

Frustrated by a lack of town hall meetings on U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen’s calendar, some of his constituents set up a gathering of their own in Plymouth on Thursday evening, drawing hundreds of people who shared concerns about Paulsen’s recent votes.

The GOP congressman, who represents Minnesota’s Third District, did not attend. That didn’t seem to damper the enthusiasm of the approximately 600 people who packed into Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, while a few hundred more waited outside.

Republican lawmakers’ town halls around the country have been drawing large crowds for sometimes confrontational meetings. But the Plymouth event was a focused discussion on some of Paulsen’s recent and upcoming votes on issues ranging from health care to demands for President Donald Trump to release his tax returns.

Event organizer Kelly Guncheon, a Plymouth financial planner, said the idea was to show the congressman that many in the west and north-metro district don’t share his views — and want to talk.

“Rep. Paulsen, I hope you hear that,” he said. “There is nothing to fear about these people. They are concerned.”

A spokesman for Paulsen, in his fifth term representing the Third Congressional District, declined to comment about the event and referred to a statement the congressman provided the Star Tribune last week. Paulsen said then that he had held “more than 100 in-person town halls, telephone town halls, and Congress on Your Corner events. He has already held two town halls this year and will continue engaging with constituents on all sides of the issues in a productive manner.”

But a growing chorus of Third District voters have been expressing frustration about those engagements. The two recent town hall meetings were both telephone events, in which Paulsen’s office dials up residents with little notice, rather than in-person events. On social media postings and at Thursday’s event, residents have noted that Paulsen has not held an in-person town hall in several years.

Paulsen’s spokesman did not respond to requests for clarification on when the congressman last held a formal town hall meeting.

Discussion topics Thursday ranged from immigration to gun control to environmental regulations. Speakers discussed Paulsen’s positions on those issues and others and held up green “agree” or red “disagree” signs to indicate if they supported those positions.

Nancy McRae of Excelsior said the conversation made it clear that Paulsen’s views didn’t line up with those of many in the crowd.

“Erik Paulsen brands himself as a moderate, and we’ve all heard tonight that he’s not,” she said.

Meetings sans politicians

The meeting was one of a handful of similar events in recent days targeted at Paulsen and Second District Rep. Jason Lewis, another Minnesota Republican without a traditional town hall on his schedule. The state’s third GOP congressman, Rep. Tom Emmer of the Sixth District, held a town-hall meeting Wednesday evening in Sartell that drew an estimated 1,000 people.

As Paulsen’s constituents met in Plymouth, a group of Second District residents were holding their own “with-or-without” meeting for Lewis at a library in West St. Paul. Organizers of that meeting were planning another at a library in Burnsville on Saturday afternoon.

Earlier in the week, they had invited Lewis to a town hall at a Northfield church. The congressman didn’t turn up. But the Faribault Daily News reported that several hundred people came to submit questions or ask them in front of a camera so they could be sent to Lewis’ office.

Each of those events were organized by local organizations that sprung up following the presidential election, including a branch of the national group Indivisible. Local groups around the country have taken up efforts under that banner, guided by a document called “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” which was written by former congressional staff members.

Some Republicans have pointed to the Indivisible groups as evidence that national organizers are driving the wave of well-attended and heated town hall meetings for GOP lawmakers around the country, rather than local residents — a claim disputed repeatedly Thursday evening in Ply­mouth.

In a letter published by the Star Tribune on Tuesday, first-term Congressman Lewis said his voting schedule in Washington has kept him busy and that he had been meeting with constituents but does not endorse “a partisan, political point-scoring event filtering down from nationally organized ‘Indivisible’ groups with handbooks from Democrat former staffers.”