By Megan McClure and Patrick R. Potyondy
New Mexico Senator Gerald "Jerry" Ortiz y Pino (D) proves that convening public meetings with constituents is not as daunting as it might seem. In fact, his approach is both efficient and effective.
His event in January easily drew more than 100 people. Ortiz y Pino proved that a productive and effective meeting can be done in as little as two hours. On top of that, it can be organized with multiple members from the opposite chamber to extend its efficacy for all involved.
Part of Ortiz y Pino’s approach rests on his ability to lend his clout and community connections to members of the New Mexico House. Both newly elected and well-seasoned representatives benefited. Representatives G. Andrés Romero (D), Javier Martínez (D) and Miguel Garcia (D) also attended. Ortiz y Pino benefited by reaffirming connections with fellow legislators and constituents. The public benefited by meeting with several legislators at one event. Four members, it seems, is a better draw than one.
This is not to say the members exerted no effort to produce such a strong turnout. They reserved a publicly accessible conference room, equipped with a microphone, podium and chairs. To announce the event, Ortiz y Pino used his long-established email list. This sort of list, it appears, can provide dividends far down the road. He also used social media connections as well as a local neighborhood blog that reached some 400 readers in the immediate district. This list and the robust turnout resulted from Ortiz y Pino holding these meetings for several years. The effectiveness appears to have built, meeting after meeting.
Although all four members in this case were Democrats, a wide range of viewpoints and topics of discussion emerged. A civil and open dialogue developed between the members and the audience as questions and answers were offered in turn.
Ultimately, the meeting exhibited true civility in organization and execution with Ortiz y Pino moderating and hosting. Even some of the most difficult topics New Mexico, like many other states, is facing were openly discussed.
The members, for instance, tackled difficult issues over election policy, early childhood education funding, water rights and even questions concerning institutional racism. Having multiple members with expertise in different areas available to address issues, the audience felt more comfortable asking an array of difficult questions.
All the legislators engaged with each other in a friendly manner and allowed each other to speak when they wished on the topics they wanted to cover. And the legislators had civil conversations with constituents who stayed after the meeting to speak with them individually.
Much of this was surely because Ortiz y Pino knew many of the people attending by name and kept the atmosphere light and friendly, emphasizing a sense of community. The representatives were similarly well connected with the community.
For example, Romero, a local high school teacher, was able to speak on issues about education on a very local level. Martínez tackled the tough subject of criminal justice reform head-on to the appreciation of the questioner. And Garcia did a great job of keeping the mood light by opening his section with a joke and using a catchy gimmick to frame the topics he wanted to address, calling them “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.”
While we hear so much these days about the vitriol in the public square, we can attest that civil, levelheaded town hall meetings are not only possible, they’re happening in Albuquerque.
Megan McClure is a senior staff assistant in NCSL's Legislative Staff Services program.
Patrick Potyondy is a legislative policy specialist and Mellon-ACLS public fellow in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.