Accountability is on the ballot in Texas 

Paul Beckham and Gary Giffen leave Zilker Elementary School in Austin after casting ballots for the primary election on March 4, 2014 Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

What kind of Congress do you want? What do you expect from your public servants? This year, voters across Texas and the country have stark choices between not just different policies or personalities, but entirely different views of what a lawmaker’s job is.

From the moment early last year when dozens of members of Congress decided it was “safer” to make themselves unavailable to their own constituents during the lead-up to the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Americans across the country have rallied to demand real access to our elected officials. From “empty chair” town halls held in the lawmaker’s absence, to mass calls, office visits and letter writing, and finally to direct action in our nation’s capital — epitomized powerfully when two Arizonans confronted Senator Jeff Flake in a Senate elevator with their stories of sexual assault — the message is clear: one way or another our lawmakers need to listen to us.

The good news is we can dramatically change course this November. We can elect leaders who truly represent our districts and genuinely have our best interests at heart. A successful democracy can’t be sustained if it is only practiced six weeks every two or four years. We need to not only elect leaders willing to make themselves accessible, listen to us, and accept criticism, we need to remain engaged and hold them accountable long after Election Day.

One hundred fifty-one members of Congress, including 20 of the 38 members of the Texas delegation, haven’t held a single open town hall meeting or other public forum with their constituents this term. At the same time, there are multiple members of Congress who have held more than 100 town halls over the past two years, spanning both parties as well as states and districts considered both competitive and “safe.” There is clearly a better way.

So this year we launched our Town Hall Pledge campaign, asking 2018 candidates to commit to holding just four open town hall meetings per year once elected. As of today, more than 270 candidates across the country and 41 in Texas — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, incumbents as well as challengers — have committed. Pledgers include stalwart conservatives like Kevin Cramer in North Dakota, open seat competitors like Todd Litton and Dan Crenshaw in TX-02, and progressive rock stars like Stacey Abrams. Accessibility is not a partisan issue. 

Forty-three of these Town Hall Pledge candidates are running against an incumbent “missing member” who hasn’t held a single public form this term — districts with a clear contrast on how each candidate sees his or her role as a public servant. We’re calling these “Do Your Job Districts.”And nowhere in America is there a more high-profile Do Your Job contest than Texas, where “missing member” Ted Cruz is being challenged by Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso congressman who’s not only held numerous town halls in his home district but has made his campaign town halls across the entire state a core feature of his campaign. 

And it’s not just the Senate race. The Lone Star State is home to seven Do Your Job Districts, more than any other state in America (U.S. Senate, and Congressional Districts 10, 12, 14, 24, 25, and 31). To each of those incumbents we say, it’s time to Do Your Job — or let someone else do it for you.

If we want a more representative democracy, we need leaders who actually listen to ordinary constituents, including those who disagree with them. If we want a healthy democracy, we need leaders who spend at least as much time in community centers and school gymnasiums as they do at high dollar fundraisers. When our representatives cast a vote on the floors of Congress they should be thinking more about how to explain and defend that decision to a crowded auditorium of voters than to a big money special interest group. 

Every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, should commit to listening to voters of all stripes long after the polls close. As engaged citizens it is our responsibility to demand this of candidates this fall, then hold them accountable throughout their terms. This is how we take back our democracy. And Texas can lead the way in November.

Jimmy Dahman

Founder and executive director, Town Hall Project