HELENA — It has been months since Rep. Denny Rehberg, a champion of the town hall meeting, has held one of the wide-open events — but the congressman is not abandoning the platform.
Rehberg told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he has been forced to hold other types of events in recent months when back in Montana due to a new leadership post requiring he build part of a proposed federal budget, the demands of his developing campaign against U.S. Jon Tester and other factors.
The change comes as many in Congress figure out the freewheeling town halls aren't the best way to gather voter support — and as Rehberg launches into the biggest campaign of his career in one of the most-watched Senate races in the nation.
But Rehberg is adamant he is not turning away from the platform. There have been times in the past where he did just a few all year, he pointed out. Then at other times he held dozens.
"I like to mix it up, I like to do different things," Rehberg said. "This is not unusual. There are times when I do more in one year, then less in another year."
A day after being asked by The Associated Press about the lack of recent town halls, the congressman scheduled Monday public listening sessions in Jordan and Circle.
Rehberg held a distinct publicity advantage during the health care debate of 2009 where his message of opposition resonated with the occasionally angry town hall crowds. He blasted U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester for not taking the health care bill into the teeth of the town hall format.
Fast forward two years and Rehberg finds his party in control in the House and he is now chairman of a subcommittee responsible for drafting a proposed federal labor, health, and education budget. And Rehberg has not held an anything-goes town hall since April.
Ever since, much like the senators, he has focused on select meetings with small, affected special-interest groups like school officials, community centers, Job Corps administrators or local business leaders.
A Montana State University political scientist tracking Rehberg's bid to oust U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says the biggest reason for the change is that Rehberg now must govern as part of the majority in the U.S. House. That means he has to meet with all the specific groups affected by his budget, such as community health centers.
"He has to spend more time talking to the people he affects with the budget he writes as chairman," said David Parker, who also writes the Big Sky Political Analysis blog.
Rehberg said that Parker is correct.
"With the responsibility of the subcommittee chairmanship, it has changed my schedule," Rehberg said.
The congressman said he has also had to attend more local Republican functions now that he is running against Tester, and hold more fundraisers.
But even though Rehberg has not held a town hall meeting in six months, that hasn't stopped him from continuing to take frequent credit for holding town halls. And even though many of his most meetings back home in recent appear no more public than those held by Baucus and Tester, he continues to dig them for not holding town halls.
"Most of the criticism occurred around the health care debate because they were hiding," Rehberg said. "If you don't have open town hall meetings, people notice."
Tester's re-election campaign believes that Rehberg is unfairly trying to take credit for holding more public meetings.
The senator's campaign provided a list of 19 public meetings that Tester has held since May as evidence he is in front of the public. Most are billed as "roundtable" meetings over a specific issue with a specific group, such as with veterans, small businesses, educators, farm groups, or a local community. Generally, the members of the public who do show up can ask questions, and some of the events have been widely attended.
"I regularly meet with and hear from Montanans in public because it's part of the job I love," Tester said in a statement. "I don't use public meetings as a talking point as some do. I use them to get valuable information and perspective from the people I serve."
Rehberg said that he is confident the public recognizes him as someone that holds a lot of those meetings, even if there has been a lull in his schedule, because they have long been part of his promise to visit all 56 counties every two-year congressional term.
"People know if you are making contact with them," Rehberg said. "I don't need to convince anyone, because they see me."