U.S. Sen. James Lankford will hold what he calls a “community conversation” in Ponca City on Thursday, just two days after attending Gov. Kevin Stitt’s prayer breakfast at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
By the way, it will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Standing Bear Museum, so be sure to take the day off from work and drive to Ponca City if you have pressing questions for the junior senator from Oklahoma.
OpinionFrom George Lang, our lead opinion columnist
Such events are rare for Lankford, and still rarer when counting such events in the urban centers of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Lankford’s last “community conversation” in Oklahoma City was held 10 months ago at the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives headquarters, and his last such event in the Tulsa area took place Sept. 4 at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.
What further distinguishes his April 2019 appearance in Oklahoma City is that Lankford’s press office only announced the event through press release shortly before it took place, as in the same day. The press release was issued April 15, and the event happened later on April 15.
Having worked in journalism for over 25 years, I say with a degree of certainty that a politician who issues a press release for a town hall meeting only hours before the event does not want anyone to show up. In this case, it was held 6 p.m. that night, meaning that locking eyes with any kind of media coverage, leaving work in time and arranging for child care or other contingencies is unlikely if not impossible for working people.
A look at Lankford’s social accounts indicates that he or his team posted about the event April 11 on Twitter and April 12 on Facebook, but a level of public awareness sufficient to seing such posts requires constituents to follow him on social media. Even then, the post will get lost in the constant litany of other posts by other people, and only found if the interested party scrolls through Lankford’s accounts at the right time.
Lankford announces every town hall meeting as a “community conversation,” a term that is unlikely to show up if, like most people, one Googles “Lankford town hall meeting” to find where and when the senator will appear next to answer questions from constituents. The common parlance is “town hall meeting,” but Lankford chooses not to use that term.
When he does hold such meetings, it is usually in rural areas. In the past year, Lankford has held “community conversations” in Seiling, Checotah, Sallisaw and Stillwell. He did meet with a group called the Mustang Positive Posse in November, but the Positive Posse actually charges attendees a fee if they bring anything negative to the table, so that seems pretty safe for Lankford.
Most of his other appearances in Oklahoma take place at chambers of commerce, prayer breakfasts, Rotary Club meetings or events related to the military and veterans. Generally speaking, these are friendly events for a conservative senator from Oklahoma to attend.
But when it comes to those who might disagree with Lankford, he is remarkably unavailable. On July 31, a group of Normanites called Women in Action For All picketed his Midtown offices in Oklahoma City because members wanted Lankford to meet with them to discuss the housing of children in detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border. The rarity of his town hall meetings was not lost on them.
“We would like a town hall at a larger venue, in a larger town, for longer,” Women in Action chairperson Rhonda Stock told Norman Transcript. “There’s other issues, too, that people would bring. We just feel like with his communication with his constituents, it’s like he has a wall there. And he doesn’t want to hear what we have to say.”
To date, such a meeting in Norman has not taken place.
At this time, a gubernatorial or senatorial candidate campaigning for all votes in Oklahoma can effectively choose a rural election strategy and come out the winner. This was especially true for Stitt, who got clobbered in Oklahoma County in 2018 but sailed to an easy win on the backs of the other 76 counties.
This column is directed at Lankford and his schedulers because, to be frank, 74-year-old U.S. Sen. James Inhofe is unlikely to make changes at this point in his life and career. I also do not see Lankford as an irrevocably lost cause. He regularly reaches across the aisle to work with Democrats on senate bills, which is better than can be said about most of his Republican colleagues these days.
But he is not listening to everyone. Lankford avoids events in places where his opinions are likely to be challenged. When he does schedule such meetings, it is with little prior public announcement. He is a senator for rural and conservative voters, which leaves many of us without any meaningful representation in the upper body of Congress.
If Lankford holds town hall meetings or even “community conversations” with greater frequency and proximity to population centers, it is far more likely that attendees will be genial and open to hearing what he has to say.
If not, he is choosing not to hear what we have to say.
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