Sen. James Lankford hosted a telephone town hall Feb. 16, marking his first town hall since being re-elected on Nov. 8.
Unlike traditional town halls where politicians meet their constituents in a public forum, Lankford chose a telephone town hall that required signing up beforehand to then receive an invitation to the phone conference. The closed, virtual town hall was streamed live online while it occurred, but there was no way to join it.
The conference call, which lasted roughly an hour, began with Lankford informing the listeners how the call worked: The thousands of people invited to join could listen but would be muted. If one wished to asked a question, they would press a button and be added to a queue from which the Senator’s staff would select. Most callers were not afforded an opportunity to comment or ask follow-up questions.
Former senator blasts Lankford on Facebook
At the opening of the town hall, Lankford had told the listeners that “we do a lot of town halls” and, if their questions were not answered, they were free to call his office in Washington, D.C. As he was wrapping up the town hall, he said that anyone who did not get a chance to ask him a question could email his office.
Later that day, however, former Oklahoma Sen. Al McAffrey said on his Facebook that Lankford’s telephones were not being answered:
Lankford took 14 questions from Oklahomans mostly in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa area. If you missed it (and there’s a good chance you did), here are the highlights:
On Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
On the topic of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Lankford told Virginia from Oklahoma City not to worry about DeVos’s commitment to public education. Despite being a “non-traditional” pick and working for 30 years to promote private schools, DeVos has said “under sworn testimony” that she supported strong public schools, Lankford said.
Lankford also said that DeVos is not going to try to be the Education Secretary for every school district — as if every teacher works for her — but one “who facilitates, coordinates and works as an education secretary.”
Later, he told Tracy Davis McCloud of Ponca City that most people did not know who the last education secretary was because the “work is very behind the scenes.” McCloud was not given the opportunity to say whether she knew who the last Education Secretary was (it was John King Jr., by the way).
On Russian interference in the 2016 election
Lankford told James, a 23-year-old from Oklahoma City, that Russia is no friend to the United States. He said there was “no question” that Russia interfered in the election — though he did not believe it affected the outcome. Lankford said Russia had a long history of interfering in elections, even placing an agent in President Jimmy Carter’s campaign.
He told Sara in Moore that the House and Senate intelligence committees would be investigating Russian interference in the election, and he did not support an independent commission, saying it would take too long for them to get clearances.
On Scott Pruitt at the EPA
Answering Chris in Broken Arrow, Lankford said not to worry about former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt running the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has sued several times. According to Lankford, Pruitt’s suits were not against the mission of the EPA. He said they were protecting Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality. He also added that he supports changes to endangered-species legislation, insisting it is too difficult to remove animals once added.
On repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act
Lankford told Clayton of Edmond, whose 8-year-old daughter has type-1 diabetes and whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, that the process to repeal the ACA would start in the next six months. He reassured Clayton that it would not take effect for two to three years, though, owing to how long it takes the health insurance companies to implement new policy. He also told Clayton that it was not true that Republicans did not have a plan to replace the ACA. Lankford said they “have 100 plans” but did not mention any specifics.
On wiretaps in the White House
Lankford told Gary from Tulsa that he did not think that the Obama administration had tapped the White House phones and that the leaks were likely from carryover staff. He was confident in the White House staff to sweep for listening devices. He said that leaks in a new administration are not unusual, and the Obama administration had similar leaks when it took office. He did not offer any examples.
On extreme partisanship
Laura from Edmond called and was concerned about partisan rhetoric and increasing polarization in her community. She asked Lankford how we can steer the country back to the center. Lankford said it was not his intention to “find the middle” but rather “find civility.”
Lankford seemed annoyed by some of the extreme rhetoric of the left and Trump’s supporters, saying:
My main focus is you should be able to have strong debate, clear debate, but not personal attacks. When it shifts into personal attacks, when I’ve stopped listening, when I’ve read this on a blog site so it must be true, and I hate you and you hate me, and everybody’s a racist, or lock her up — we’ve crossed a boundary where no one is listening anymore.
On government transparency
Lankford told Pamela, a veteran U.S. Army intelligence analyst and Russian linguist from Tulsa, that he supports transparency in political campaigns and that all of his political contributions are available online by law. He said he opposed policy to make American oil and gas companies report contracts in Russia because it would hurt their business to reveal details about prices.
Lankford said it seemed Trump had changed his mind about releasing his tax returns, but he has never been interested in a presidential candidate’s tax returns, saying, “I don’t care.”
On toeing the party line
Lankford received more that one question about whether he would ever vote against his party and Trump. Lankford defended himself, indicating he is not concerned with the will of his constituents in Oklahoma:
My responsibility is to represent Oklahoma and do the best research. I do a lot of a reading and have an excellent staff. I will not take a poll of everyone and vote the way they want. We are a representative republic. My job is to do research and decide.
On appearing in-person in Oklahoma
Asked when he would return to Oklahoma to do a public town hall, Lankford said that the Senate was very busy the first 16 weeks of the session doing confirmation hearings, and he had worked several 24-hour days already.