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The Town Is Left Off the Guest List at Town Halls

Many election-season meetings are carefully scripted, and audiences are usually chosen from groups sympathetic to the candidates.

September 29, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger is holding town hall meetings up and down the state in his campaign for governor. But he never invites the town.

"These people don't even live here," said East Los Angeles resident Augusto Alarcon, 48, referring to the crowd inside the Hollenbeck Youth Center, the site of one of Schwarzenegger's recent town halls.

Alarcon, who lives around the corner, was kept out on the sidewalk. "I wasn't invited," he explained.

Like all the Schwarzenegger gatherings, the Hollenbeck event was designed to mimic New England-style democracy -- a California version of civic-minded Connecticutters filing through open doors to greet and grill a village politician.

Except that the doors in East L.A. were guarded by police officers. Campaign staffers shooed away neighborhood folks without tickets. And there was no grilling by the 250 attendees, who had been recruited by groups friendly to the candidate.

The scene was not uncommon. Many election-season town halls are invitation-only affairs as carefully scripted as a commercial. Some are filmed for advertisements, with the lights ablaze, the stage decked in flags, and the questioners as flattering of the candidate as the camera angles.

At minimum, town halls provide nicely packaged news footage for local TV stations, which can be the next best thing to an ad.

"They make for good free media," said Jerry Lubenow, director of the Center on Politics at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. "Voters like them.... People want to believe they're real."

The practice of turning town halls into candidate vanity venues long predates the California recall.

Bill Clinton made clever use of them -- some less fan-packed than others -- during his 1992 drive for the White House. Two years later, at an MTV town hall, he famously revealed his underwear choice (briefs), in answer to a question that appeared prearranged to endear Clinton to young voters. ("It wasn't a setup," said Ann Lewis, a former Clinton communications director.)

In 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain held dozens of town halls during the presidential primary in New Hampshire, where they were closer to the freewheeling model of the Granite State's traditions.

"I saw McCain get some very ugly questions," said Dan Schnur, who was the senator's communications director.

Schnur played a similar role in Peter V. Ueberroth's aborted recall campaign. Ueberroth, who quit the race Sept. 9, had tried to kick-start his drive with a series of town halls. Gov. Gray Davis is also using them in the fight to keep his job.

The Ueberroth town halls were as tightly orchestrated as Schwarzenegger's. The former Olympics chief had hoped to spin them into commercials, as McCain did, Schnur said.

The first took place at a San Diego hotel. Many of the 50 participants, who were nearly outnumbered by TV camera operators, had been solicited on the basis of questions they had e-mailed to Ueberroth's Web site. These included broad inquiries, and his responses were such bromides as, "Californians have to do the right thing." If an e-mailer didn't show, the campaign gave the question to someone who did.

"I don't think it was for the local citizens," said Bob Pattison, 62, a San Diego real estate investor who dropped in on the town hall. "It was more of a press deal."

Schnur remains committed to the tactic. "Its popularity is based on the same thing that makes talk radio popular," he said. "Voters would much rather watch people like themselves question the candidates, instead of other candidates and reporters doing it for them."

The Schwarzenegger camp says its town halls are as spontaneous as they can be. The Republican movie star, whose Hollywood polish shines in the choreographed settings, has hosted half a dozen of the "Ask Arnold" sessions, with more scheduled before the Oct. 7 election.

"We honestly have no idea what's going to happen in these events," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Todd Harris. "There's a misconception that they're completely prepackaged.... They're not."

Harris said tickets to the town halls are distributed to a variety of organizations without pass-along restrictions. In theory, he said, they could land in anyone's hands -- and tough questioning could result. That hasn't happened, however. The groups tapped as audience finders typically have Republican Party affiliations or sympathies.

The East L.A. confab seemed to promise a little sizzle. The campaign billed it as an all-immigrant "Ask Arnold," and the Hollenbeck gymnasium was indeed filled with nonnatives.

Would they cross-examine Schwarzenegger over his backing of a 1994 ballot initiative that would have denied public services to illegal immigrants? Or interrogate him for his denunciation of a new state law that grants driver's licenses to illegal immigrants?

No. There was just one question about the licenses, from a polite, if long-winded, man who thought them a sensible idea. Schwarzenegger dispatched the query with ease.

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