U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said Tuesday she's happy with the smaller settings of her invitation-only "community coffees" and isn't planning to hold another large-scale town hall.
About 60 people attended her latest gathering at Judy's Restaurant in Longview on Tuesday morning, a fraction of the attendance at earlier town halls in her Southwest Washington district.
To Herrera Beutler, a Camas Republican in her first term, it's about maintaining the quality of discussion with constituents without the influence of outside interests.
"I get to hear what real people are thinking, not people who organize from Portland or Seattle," Herrera Beutler said.
However, some constituents said Herrera Beutler should make herself more available, even if she's exposed to tough questions. Some complained that they only learned about Tuesday's event from others who received invitations, which undoubtedly reduced the number of people participating.
"Fifty to 60 people out of 30,000 in Longview-Kelso is nothing," retiree Bill Kasch of Longview said.
According to spokesman Casey Bowman, Herrera Beutler has hosted 15 community coffees in Southwest Washington this year, and she will hold more before the end of the year. Five have been held in Cowlitz County — in Longview, Kelso, Kalama, Castle Rock and Woodland, he said.
Her office does not send advance notice of the coffees to local media nor does she post alerts on her website. Herrera Beutler said she sent out 4,000 notices and robocalls to Cowlitz County voters for Tuesday's meeting.
Herrera Beutler said she decided to start holding the coffees after a May town hall in Vancouver, where she was reportedly heavily criticized for her support for restructuring Medicare.
Herrera Beutler said she also heard from constituents who attended that event but were afraid to speak because of the booing and catcalls. The smaller venues chosen for the coffees make constituents more comfortable, she said.
"My goal is for you to able to ask me face to face. What I don't want is a group of people from outside our region," Herrera Beutler said.
Herrera Beutler has held one traditional town hall-type meeting in Cowlitz County since she took office at the beginning of the year, a generally civil gathering at the Cowlitz PUD auditorium in Longview in February.
Herrera Beutler is not alone in shying away from town halls, which started becoming increasingly contentious nationwide in 2009 during the debate over healthcare reform. A survey this August by No Labels, a government watchdog group, found that about 60 percent of U.S. House members did not hold town hall meetings during the 2011 summer recess.
Many members of Congress, like Herrera Beutler, are instead staging smaller gatherings with targeted groups in their districts, such as business owners or professional educators.
At Tuesday's meeting, the more intimate setting didn't cause people to shy away from criticizing the congresswoman. Kathy Thompson, a Longview real-estate broker, blasted Herrera Beutler for signing conservative activist Grover Norquist's pledge not to support any tax increase of any kind.
"I think this is totally un-American. I think your only pledge should be to uphold the Constitution of the United States," Thompson said.
Later, a woman identifying herself as affiliated with a Longview offshoot of the Occupy Portland movement asked Herrera Beutler to stand up against "corporate greed," which prompted another man wearing a U.S. Army hat to stand up and criticize the Occupy protesters.
Herrera Beutler also fielded questions about Social Security, Medicare, the recent failure of the so-called congressional "super committee" and the proposed Millennium coal terminal.
Herrera declined to say whether she would support the new coal export dock in West Longview, but she said she "leans toward job creation." If approved, the terminal would support about 70 jobs.
Herrera Beutler said she appreciated the back-and-forth with constituents.
"I've gotten a lot of good ideas coming out of these meetings," she said.