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Rachel Pienta: Gwen Graham listening session turns into hour-long filibuster

On Saturday, January 24, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham met with 30 area Democrats. While there was some representation from Wakulla, Jefferson, and Bay counties, the room was dominated by Leon residents. What had been billed as a listening session with opportunities to ask Graham about votes taken during her brief time on Capitol Hill turned into something resembling a local delegation meeting – if someone were allowed to hijack the meeting and hold a filibuster for an hour.

When the gathering kicked off with a prepared 20-minute speech delivered by Dr. Ray Bellamy, a registered Republican who proudly declares he has not voted for a Republican since 2000, I wondered where we were headed. When Bellamy’s lecture concluded and he was followed by Rich Templin, in his professional role representing the AFL-CIO, I knew the session was not going to be what concerned constituents had been promised.

During the presentations from lobbyists Barbara Devane and Templin and the opening harangue from self-styled liberal scold Bellamy, Graham’s face was calm and her expression attentive. The presentations hit the one-hour mark and no citizens had yet posed any questions about her stance on issues. Nor had anyone asked for her perspective on any of the controversial floor votes that were the original impetus for this gathering.

At the one hour mark, I raised my hand. Barbara Devane was in the process of introducing her next set of “experts” – calling upon Elsie Crowell and Bishop Holifield, a PhD and MD who often speak on health-care issues, to discuss the local impact of the Affordable Care Act. Crowell expressed surprise at being asked to speak. She had not prepared remarks. Holifield had a prepared statement that he distributed to the gathering.

At Graham’s urging, Devane reluctantly acknowledged my raised hand, asking me, “What topic do you want to speak on?”

I emphasized that I had a question to pose, rather than a speech to deliver. I asked how many more experts were on the agenda to give testimony.

Devane declared that everyone would get the chance to speak but only after the “experts and the doctors finish speaking.” I was taken aback by this declaration. I wondered if I should have claimed my own PhD title – the same credentials that Templin and Crowell hold – and, if I had done so, would my voice have been elevated above other citizens in the room as those of Devane’s chosen experts had been?

If Graham and her staff continue with such meetings, it might serve all citizens better if everyone had to fill out an appearance card to speak and time limits were followed. If the goal of future gatherings is to engage in casual discourse with constituents across the district, I recommend another approach – a roundtable format that places Graham and citizens together at a table. It is more than possible to have effective community engagement gatherings of this nature. Graham and staff have shown their willingness to have an open-door policy. The challenge, moving forward, is to find the best format for this district.

I would like to see Graham et al schedule regular roundtables and give citizens the opportunity to sign up for a spot until the “table” is filled. The more intimate nature of a roundtable discussion would allow constituents to engage in the sort of dialogue I believe Graham and her staff intended to provide a venue for on Saturday. Establishing a regular schedule and a structured format would prevent the sort of hijacking that occurred during Saturday’s meeting. Given the sprawling geography of the district, such sessions may need to be held in locations other than the population centers of Bay and Leon. I look forward to suggesting potential meeting locations in Wakulla County.

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