By Sean Miner
Sun Current Newspapers
Several hundred residents of the Third Congressional District packed into Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth Feb. 23. They had come for a town hall meeting — some 600 people found a seat or standing room in the sanctuary and adjoining rooms, while a few hundred more stood outside.
The town hall meeting, held in the hopes that Rep. Erik Paulsen would attend, was organized by Plymouth residents Kelly Guncheon and Holly Graves Guncheon. Paulsen did not attend the event, having declined an invitation prior to that Thursday evening, but that didn’t stop his constituents from discussing their representative and some of his recent votes in Congress.
Kelly Guncheon said the event sprang from a conversation between himself and his wife a few weeks ago.
“Paulsen came up, and his voting record, and how it’s totally contrary to what our positions are,” said Guncheon. “My wife said she wanted to meet him. I said, ‘He doesn’t meet with people like us.’”
So, they decided to organize a town hall meeting, inviting Paulsen, but fully intending to hold the meeting whether he showed up or not.
“We just created a Facebook page, and sent out messages to everyone we knew in Congressional District 3,” said Guncheon. “Suddenly, the number of shares and likes on the Facebook page grew exponentially, every day.”
Guncheon noted Paulsen had said he wasn’t available the evening of the town hall. He pointed out, however, that despite personally calling Paulsen’s office every day between then and the town hall date, asking for alternative days to hold the event, he didn’t get a response.
The Guncheons did get a response, however, from many people volunteering to help with the event. He said that one man volunteered to livestream the event. Others took on the task of raising awareness by contacting media outlets, and a woman with access to printing means produced a life-size cardboard cutout of Rep. Paulsen, anticipating his absence.
“Everything about it was a town hall meeting,” said Guncheon. “It was just overwhelming. I had no idea that many people would show up.”
With Paulsen absent, Guncheon himself led the meeting, which centered around Paulsen’s recent actions in the nation’s Legislature. Participants were given cards with “agree” and “disagree” written on them, and were asked to react to each of the votes.
Ranging from health care to Paulsen’s decision, as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, to vote against forcing President Trump to release his tax returns, most of the assembly’s votes tended overwhelmingly toward disagreement.
“Our intention, first of all, was to invite everyone,” said Guncheon. “But, the people who will show up at a town hall meeting are the people who are concerned … so yes, it was left-leaning, definitely, but that was not the intent.”
He also noted that, despite an ideological imbalance, the conversation was civil and allowed for multiple points of view.
“It’s the issues that are important, rather than the labels,” said Guncheon. “I think the issues we discussed would be important to left-leaning and right-leaning people alike … I think we saw that there was a little bit of varied opinions on some of the issues, which is great. I started out by saying in the beginning, ‘That’s what democracy looks like.’”
Guncheon said that while he had not personally voted for Rep. Paulsen, he had voted for Jim Ramstad, Paulsen’s Republican predecessor.
“I believe we have to have the best people of the job, regardless of party affiliation,” said Guncheon.
Voices of the people
With town hall meetings for congressional representatives making headlines around the country, Guncheon scoffed at the idea that any of the town hall attendees were paid, or from outside the Third District.
“There are 600,000 people in the district,” said Guncheon. “Forty-three percent of people didn’t vote for him. How difficult do you think it is to draw that many people? It’s just absurd to think that people won’t show up unless they’re paid for something like this. They just want their voices heard.”
With microphones spaced throughout the sanctuary, constituents were allowed their say on a range of topics, even if Rep. Paulsen wasn’t there to listen. Those gathered outside the church discussed their views and concerns with one another as well.
Given signs reading “agree” and “disagree,” the town hall meeting-goers react here to Lisa Swenson, from Brooklyn Park, registered her disapproval of Paulsen’s vote regarding Trump’s tax returns.
“He voted for [Trump] to not show us his tax returns, when that is the main thing that would make it very easy to see, for the American public, whether Trump’s business conflicts are a problem,” said Swenson. “I’m very unhappy with [Paulsen’s] performance for us … He can resign if he’s not willing to represent the people.”
While many of the town hall attendees disagreed with some or many of Paulsen’s votes, even more disapproval was directed toward Paulsen and other Republicans’ response to the Trump administration.
Suzanne Woods, of Chanhassen, perceived a discrepancy between the moderate district that Paulsen represents and some of the actions he had taken.
“I’m here because, for the first time since Nixon, Chanhassen went for a Democratic president,” said Woods. “Paulsen is supposed to speak for us, and he’s not … I’m angry that, instead of working for what’s best for the people, Mr. Paulsen has chosen to work for what’s best for elite Republicans. And that makes me angry.”
Paulsen’s office did not respond to a direct request for comment on the town hall meeting. It was one in a series of events that have called specifically for Paulsen to hold in-person meetings with his constituents.
Paulsen does, with some frequency, hold telephone town hall events, in which several hundred constituents can take part in a conference call. According to those who have taken part in the calls, only screened questions are allowed to be asked, for which Paulsen gives a response. But, many have criticized the model for the lack of opportunity for dialogue.
The morning after the event, Guncheon said that there were no immediate plans to hold another such with-or-without-you town hall meeting.
“I’m still recovering from last night, but my inclination is to say, ‘Yes, we’ll do another one of these soon,’” he said. “There was nothing but positive feedback for what happened last night, even the people standing outside in the cold.
“Obviously, next time we need to find a bigger space,” added Guncheon.
Contact Sean Miner at [email protected]