SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Chris Stewart will hold a town hall meeting Friday night, the first in Utah since a raucous anti-Trump crowd shouted down his Republican congressional colleague last month.
The three-term GOP representative plans to hold the event at West High School in Salt Lake City, the most progressive and liberal slice of his district covering the western half of Utah.
"I'm not a afraid to go to a place where I know that the majority of people don't agree with me," Stewart said. "But I still have an obligation to hear them. I have a responsibility for them to have an opportunity to talk to their congressman."
Crowds opposed to President Donald Trump's election and policies have sparked relentless jeering at town hall meetings across the country, including in Utah. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, accused people of bullying and intimidation at his meeting at Brighton High School last month.
That prompted Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans to urge Utah's congressional delegation to postpone town hall meetings due to "acts of intimidation and violence." He said he would caution Stewart to have proper security.
Other than Chaffetz, no member of the state's all-Republican congressional delegation held a live event during the February House and Senate recess.
Community activist Deeda Seed calls those public meetings the "gold standard" community forum for people to engage one-on-one with politicians.
"As we've witnessed, some of our elected officials don't seem to like that format anymore," said Seed, an organizer of Salt Lake Indivisible, one of several groups opposing the Trump agenda that have sprung up in the state.
In addition to attending town hall events, group members write letters and call and visit congressional offices with their messages on a variety of issues.
Some officials "prefer to keep a distance from us right now," Seed acknowledged.
"We can't tell what the reason for that is. It could be that they're scared. It could be just that they'd rather not because they think they know what they're going to hear and don't want to hear it," she said.
Boyd Matheson, former chief of staff for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he doesn't think Utah members of Congress are ducking town hall meetings or personal interaction with voters. He said Lee wants tough questions and pushback from constituents.
"With Sen. Lee, we always would call on the person with the climate change T-shirt on or the Obama T-shirt on because they were good questions. They were people who genuinely made the effort to come, and so we would call on those people first because it was good dialog," he said.
But, he said, groups like Indivisible and others have turned those exchanges into shouting matches.
"They're not interested in having a conversation or having an elevated dialog about something. They want to disrupt and protest, and so that’s where the problem is," said Matheson, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute.
Evans attributes the disruption to a coordinated effort by Organizing for Action, a Democratic activist group founded to push former President Barack Obama's policies.
"It's just orchestrated outrage," he said, calling on the Democrats to denounce the tactic.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said the local party hasn't had a hand in organizing any of the anti-Trump groups that have popped up in the state. People realize they can't sit on the sidelines anymore, he said.
Salt Lake Indivisible and Utah Indivisible grew out of the nationwide Indivisible concept, an online guide for resisting the Trump agenda written by former congressional staffers.
"It's organic," said Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman who has organized community activism for 30 years. "I've never seen it in Utah create such a broad group of us who are concerned that is really crossing demographics."
Seed said the ideal town hall meeting has a well-respected moderator who can act as an intermediary to reframe questions and create some structure to the event.
Several Utah members of Congress hold telephone town hall meetings, where people can listen online and phone in questions. Lee has held one every month for the past five years.
Lee's audience has grown and stayed online longer because the senator doesn't just take questions from "friendlies," Matheson said. If it's boring, he said, people won't listen and hard questions make it more compelling.
Nothing can replace the face-to-face meeting, but elected officials have to reach Utahns where they are and allow them to engage, Matheson said.
Seed said not everyone is on social media and such online forums preclude some people from participating.
Rep. Mia Love held her second town hall meeting in March on Thursday — online. She said she values interaction with constituents and does so as often as possible. She said she makes it a priority to ensure there is a quality, meaningful discussion on the issues people care about.
"There is evidence that the recent town hall meetings in Utah and around the country do the opposite of constructive dialogue. People have a right to protest, but we shouldn't confuse a protest or political rally with people who are interested in real dialogue," she said.
Love said she will continue to engage Utahns in a variety of ways.
Corroon said it's a mistake for the state's federal representatives to avoid meeting with residents in person and hiding only makes voters more unhappy.
Stewart said his town hall meeting at West High Friday will be his 51st since taking office in 2013 and only a handful have been electronic.
"People said you don't ever come to Salt Lake. Well that's nuts. We've been to Salt Lake a boatload of times," he said.24 comments on this story
The 2nd District congressman said he doesn't have real concerns about holding the event, even with what's gone on in Utah and around the country. He said he'll have "adequate" security to allow people to participate without threats or intimidation.
"What I hope is that it turns into something that's constructive," he said. "Some people come and they're angry, and I get that. It won't be the first time I've had someone who stood up and who was very frustrated, including some of my Republican friends."