Meet and greet? Peninsula residents seek town hall forums with congressional delegation

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to remove a group inaccurately named as the organizer of an Anchorage town hall meeting. 

When Alaska’s congressional delegates visited the Kenai Peninsula this weekend, some residents criticized them for attending party-affiliated events while not holding open-invitation town hall discussions with constituents.

Mid-April’s two-week congressional recess has brought calls from from frequently liberal constituent groups around the country for congresspeople to participate in public forums with open-ended question and answer sessions. In Alaska, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that groups in Fairbanks requested a town hall on Monday with Rep. Don Young, and held the event with Young absent after he declined the invitation. Groups in Anchorage invited Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to a similar town hall, again held in their absence.

All three are Republicans.

In Soldotna, a Friday evening event hosted two out of three Alaska congresspeople, though it wasn’t a town hall meeting. Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) were invited speakers at the Alaska Federation of Republican Women’s biennial convention, held at Soldotna’s Our Lady of Perptual Help Catholic Church.

Young had also been invited to the gathering, and though he hadn’t attended, Federation of Republican Women Convention Chair Regina Daniels said Young was scheduled to give a brunch talk to the group on Saturday.

The event was advertised on the Alaska Federation of Republican Women Facebook page. Tickets were $65. State legislators Sen. Peter Miccichie (R-Soldotna) and Rep. Gary Knopp (R-Kenai) attended, as did Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, and borough mayoral candidates Charlie Pierce and Linda Hutchings. Though Hutchings, a former Federation of Republican Women president, campaigned at the event by distributing bottled water wrapped in labels reading “Linda Hutchings for Borough Mayor,” Daniels said her group hadn’t endorsed Hutchings.

On the sidewalk outside the church parking lot, six protestors waved at passing cars and held signs reading “Lisa and Dan — We have questions for you” and “Money is not the same as speech.” Protestor Michele Vasquez had organized and announced the demonstrations on the Facebook page of Many Voices, a group formed by participants in the local March for Women in January. Vasquez said the $65 event tickets put a price on access to legislators.

“I shouldn’t have to pay to talk to my representatives,” Vasquez said.

Protestors said they had questions for the delegates about future health care bills, tax reform, the direction of U.S foreign policy, the possibility of investigating Russian influence in the recent federal election, funding for public schools and Planned Parenthood, and the future of federal agencies such as the Veteran’s Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Some said they had tried to question the delegates via email, phone, and online contact forms, but had only been added to a mailing list without receiving specific responses to their questions.

In the past Murkowksi has held town hall meetings about specific topics — such as health care-focused meetings in 2009 before the passage of the Affordable Care Act — but has not done so recently. Murkowski’s Communications Director Karina Petersen said that though Murkowski hasn’t held an open meeting with the general public, she had “a full schedule of meetings that are planned out with different stakeholder groups.”

During her Friday in Kenai and Soldotna, Petersen said Murkowski had met with the editorial board at the Peninsula Clarion, officials at Kenai’s Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services Training Center, a group of nonprofit leaders to discuss Alaska’s economy, and leaders of Homer Electric Association to talk about cybersecurity and hydropower.

Protestor Breena Litzenberger said she had called Murkowski’s office for an event schedule during the previous congressional recess in February, but hadn’t received one.

“She was saying we had an opportunity, when it didn’t really feel like we did,” Litzenberger said.

Murkowski’s website includes a page for requesting meetings. Petersen said Murkowski had gotten several townhall requests from around the state, and locally on the Kenai Peninsula, one request from an individual.

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