Jim Shella: Effort to education electorate is noble, needs help

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Jim ShellaThis is the story of one man trying to make a difference.

Les Zwirn of Indianapolis is disenchanted with American politics, specifically with what he sees as a lack of responsiveness from members of Congress.

Zwirn is on a crusade to force those in Congress, as well as congressional candidates, to interact with voters on a regular basis.

He has created what he calls the Indiana Town Hall Project, an idea with ambitious goals. He estimates that he spends 16 hours a week pursuing the creation of a series of televised town halls in every congressional district in the state on an ongoing basis.

He believes that town halls serve a purpose that political debates do not. Debates are about generating heat; town halls are about generating light, in his view.

Zwirn is a retired hospital and public health executive who describes himself as a political independent. He says he is concerned about a loss of trust in members of Congress and says that he personally has lost faith in both political parties.

Some of that faith was restored when he attended a recent town hall conducted by members of the Indiana General Assembly. For the last few years, a pair of Democratic state representatives, Ed DeLaney and Carey Hamilton, have teamed up with a Republican state senator, John Ruckelshaus, to hold bi-partisan town halls. They are generally limited to a single topic and professionally managed. They are well attended and civil. Zwirn says he felt like he was heard and received intelligent answers. He was also inspired. DeLaney and Ruckelshaus are now advising him on the Town Hall Project.

(Full disclosure: I have moderated one of the legislative town halls and Zwirn has called on me for input as well. I agreed to moderate future town halls, if they come about. However, my interest is in improving the public discussion of important issues. I don’t care who moderates.)

Zwirn imagines a circumstance in which every congressional district will see separate town halls for candidates from each party during the primary season as well as a general election town hall. He would also like to see members of Congress conduct regular town halls outside of the election season.

He’s willing to start small and is currently focusing on the 5th District where the retirement of Rep. Susan Brooks sets the stage for contested primaries in both parties in 2020.

There’s a catch and it’s a big one. He needs a sponsor and finding one has been both difficult and frustrating.

Zwirn likes to say that he is taking an outside/in approach. He doesn’t want to leave this to the political parties. He would like to team up with a not-for-profit or a university-based center. He has contacted a long list of them and keeps getting the same responses. Either they claim not to have the resources necessary or have a fear of getting involved in electoral politics. For one, memories of raucous, poorly conducted town halls on Obamacare get in the way.

He’s also been told that it will take as much as $5,000 to get live TV coverage. He has no budget.

Zwirn has located a couple of foundations willing to fund efforts to increase political literacy but only when it’s disconnected from electoral politics. He calls that ironic.

He is not giving up. But 2020 is just around the corner.•

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Shella hosted WFYI’s “Indiana Week in Review” for 25 years and covered Indiana politics for WISH-TV for more than three decades. Send comments to [email protected]


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