Is it true that one congresswoman has never held a “town hall” with her constituents during the three terms she’s served?
In a press release on Aug. 21, Democrat Cort VanOstran called out Republican Rep. Ann Wagner for not responding to his demands to have a debate and tied it in with her unavailability to constituents: “Rep. Ann Wagner, a three-term incumbent, has never held a town hall in the Second District.”
VanOstran is trying to unseat Wagner in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses much of St. Louis County and stretches as far out as O’Fallon.
Given the use of the word “never,” we found VanOstran’s contention surprising — three terms is a long time to have never held a town hall. We decided to see if this was true.
We began by looking at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition for “town hall.” It states that a town hall is “an event at which a public official or political candidate addresses an audience by answering questions posed by individual members.”
We reached out to VanOstran’s campaign for their evidence. Campaign manager Claire Botnick said the VanOstran camp simply called Wagner’s camp to ask about it, and a representative from her office said Wagner has never held a public in-person town hall.
The Wagner campaign declined an offer to comment on the record, so we examined the information we could find on our own.
Wagner has held multiple town halls conducted via telephone (known as tele-town halls), according to her social media accounts, coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Public Radio and an email exchange with one of her constituents.
However, finding in-person town halls conducted by Wagner was more difficult. A quick search of the term “town hall” on both Wagner’s Facebook and Twitter accounts showed eight events where Wagner described herself at a town hall.
But all of these events were held by private companies, where she was speaking to employees.
We asked whether the events were public or private and whether Wagner addressed questions from the audience as described in the Merriam-Webster definition.
According to company spokespersons and social media posts:
• In five cases, Wagner held ask-and-answer meetings for employees only: at Monsanto, MetLife, Express Scripts, Charter Communications and RGA.
• At Maritz Global Events, Wagner didn’t take questions, meaning the company event doesn’t fit the definition of a town hall.
• Equifax couldn’t confirm whether questions were asked, but a news release noted a “town hall session” with Wagner after a ribbon-cutting. It is unclear whether that event was open to the public.
• United Health Group didn’t respond to PolitiFact.
Beyond social media, we scrolled through articles about public events attended by Wagner that might have resembled town halls. We found no examples of events that fit the traditional definition of town halls.
Bottom line: We could not find evidence of an in-person, public town hall where Wagner took questions from constituents. At most, she has held town halls that were limited to a private group of employees at a specific company.
University of Alabama political scientist Joe Smith told PolitiFact Texas that he doesn’t view closed-to-the-public events with a company’s employees to be genuine town halls.
The employees who attend “know that their employer has arranged for and endorsed the visit, and that therefore assertive questions are not welcome,” Smith said.
Duquesne University professor Mike Dillon agreed. “The term ‘town hall’ implies an event is open to the entire community and that competing ideas will be welcomed and discussed,” Dillon said.
VanOstran said Wagner has never held a town hall in the 2nd District during her tenure as congresswoman.
She has held telephone-based town halls, as well as private events for particular companies’ employees. But experts say that a town hall traditionally involves a public official inviting any constituent to gather in a public space and ask him or her questions.
So VanOstran has a point. We rate the statement Mostly True.