Seattle activists say they were inspired by the election of President Trump to volunteer to help hold lawmakers accountable to their constituents through town-hall meetings.
Megan Riel-Mehan has long thought of public service as a sacrifice you make for the greater good.
Now, six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Riel-Mehan happily spends as many as 30 hours a week outside of her full-time job helping to lead a team of volunteers, and building and running TownHallProject.com, a progressive website with a national reach that seeks to hold members of Congress accountable to the people who elected them.
“This isn’t something I’m doing in some self-sacrificial way,’’ she says. “It’s something that is critical to my mental health.”
The impact of Riel-Mehan’s work, and that of hundreds of other volunteers who contribute to the Town Hall Project, is evident.
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The website, which allows people in every state to search whether and when their congressional representatives are holding public events to hear from constituents, has helped turn public accountability into a political pressure point that elected officials are finding increasingly hard to ignore.
Some conservatives have pointed to the involvement of Hillary Clinton’s former staffers, and its links to other progressive groups, as evidence that the site’s main purpose is to enable the harassment of Republican lawmakers. But the site collects information on all members of Congress, and public demands for accountability have moved the needle on both sides of the aisle.
This month, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, bowed to public pressure and scheduled three town-hall meetings after years of avoiding them. In March, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, was in the hot seat over his refusal to hold a town hall as he was being hounded by progressive activists and constituents.
Angry confrontations over the GOP’s health-care proposal became internet staples when Congress members held town halls in the spring, and the events themselves have become the stuff of headlines on CNN and elsewhere.
Even the Voice of America, the federally funded news organization, cited data from Town Hall Project for its story headlined “Republicans Pushing Obamacare Overhaul Hold Few Town Hall Meetings.”
Time for action
For Riel-Mehan, as for so many other Seattleites since the election, her involvement in the project means that her social life has become oriented toward political action, a development she says has made for deep conversations and meaningful friendships.
Riel-Mehan, 33, who works in molecular-biology visualization at the Allen Institute in Seattle, joined the Town Hall Project in January. She says she was burdened by the sense that she had not done enough to safeguard what she describes as the hard-fought gains of people who came before her.
She got complacent, she says, forgetting that as recently as the 1970s, she likely wouldn’t have been able to get a credit card, much less live the life she has as a financially independent single woman with a career in the sciences made possible by two undergraduate degrees and a Ph.D. in chemical biology.
After the election, Riel-Mehan interviewed her parents for their annual Christmas newsletter and was reminded of where she came from, and the values her parents had conveyed to her.
“My parents have very much managed to be people who created positive change through their work,’’ she says. “And, so, I wanted to see how you get to the point where you’re doing that. And my dad was just like, ‘Do what you can with the skills that you have in the place you find yourself.’ ”
Riel-Mehan had met other women in Seattle while making phone calls on behalf of Clinton’s presidential campaign, and she stayed in touch with many of them after the election at weekly potlucks. It was at one of those gatherings that she learned about Town Hall Project, which then existed as a Google document, updated and shared by volunteers who researched when and where members of Congress were holding public meetings.
With her dad’s advice fresh in her ears, Riel-Mehan decided she could use her coding skills to build a website that would make the information more widely available and easily searchable.
She built the tool, and then contacted Nathan Williams, a Renton native and Northwest filmmaker who was managing the Google docs project, and began working to connect the volunteers’ research to the website.
In short order, she was the project’s lead developer, a role she continues to play.
“In this moment, what I’m really attracted to is the moral clarity, and the sort of getting back to the super-simple: What does it mean to be a representative democracy? Getting back to these principles that our representatives are supposed to be responsive to us. They’re supposed to work for us. And they’re supposed to be working as hard as they can to make life better for their constituents.”
“I didn’t do enough”
The mission also attracted Ashlee Christian, 31, of Seattle, who learned of the town-hall effort through her volunteer work making graphics for the Seattle chapter of Indivisible, a group opposed to the Trump administration’s agenda.
Christian, who works in human resources for a local tech company, says she felt she should have done more during the election. She now volunteers as many as 10 hours a week creating and updating graphics for the town-hall site, and for sharing on social media to help keep the issue fresh and in the public eye.
“The people who are not angry and not totally terrified, I don’t know what their life is like,” she says. “I don’t know how they can wake up in the morning like, ‘Everything is totally fine right now.’ For me, it’s that guilt, like I didn’t do enough. I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough.”
She says she’s also reaching out to other progressive organizations that need help with their graphics.
Sarah Davis, an independent communications consultant and longtime Democratic activist from Seattle who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, has taken on the role of volunteer communications director, a role that requires as many as 10 hours a week.
“Town halls are important because they’re a chance for every person to go and tell their story to their elected officials, and tell them why it’s important,’’ Davis says.
“We’re thrilled that (members of Congress) want to have one-on-one conversations, or coffee chats and Facebook chats,’’ she says. “Those things are great. But there is no replacement for a face-to-face conversation. Town hall is where multiple people can engage … The goal is that everyone should have them.”