Politics

South Carolina Petition Starter Wants Her Senators to Hold Town Halls

AJ Walton
Feb 28, 2017

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Since the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, citizens have held protests and marches throughout the United States, and millions more have made phone calls and written letters to their elected officials and federal agencies in order to make their concerns known. And in this new era of politics, citizens have reignited the desire for another age-old practice: town hall meetings.

On Change.org, we’ve seen dozens of petitions signed by thousands of users from every corner of the nation who are demanding that their representatives meet with them face-to-face. One such user is Tara Burnette — a school teacher from South Carolina who felt ignored by her senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, who she’s supported in the past — started a Change.org petition calling on them to hold town hall meetings.

Change.org’s A.J. Walton chatted with Tara about why she started her petition, her disappointment in her representatives, why the desire for meeting with elected officials face-to-face isn’t a partisan issue, and much more. After all, the expectation that elected officials should make themselves available to the people who vote them into office is nothing new, and it’s a reminder that the interactions that happen locally, regularly, and in person are a bedrock of our democracy.

Check it out below — and consider becoming a Change.org member. Your monthly subscription supports the work that helps starters like Tara receive expert campaign advice, influence decision makers, and provides free technology to organize and facilitate the change she and others want to see in their communities and country.

Q: What led you to start your petition on Change.org, pushing for your Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham to hold a town hall in South Carolina? Why does this all matter to you?

A: As an educator, my passion is education. When Betsy DeVos was nominated for Secretary of Education, I’d never heard her name. I started doing my own research on her beliefs and her educational background. Then, I listened to her Senate confirmation hearing and was completely at a loss of words over her lack of understanding over basic educational matters. She couldn’t explain the difference between student growth and student proficiency; she failed to know that IDEA was a federal law for students with disabilities; and she cited the need to have guns in school because of a potential grizzly bear attack.

I really was shocked to watch her answer these questions in the way she did. If I gave those answers interviewing for a teaching position, I would have never been hired. As Secretary of Education she will represent all of us, and I was furious to say the least. I spent the next few weeks making phone calls, composing emails, sending Facebook messages, and even tweeting to both of them. I wasn’t the only one from what I could see on the internet. Then the Senate confirmed her as Secretary of Education.

Our senators completely ignored their constituents in South Carolina. That’s when I decided to create the petition. I decided they needed to answer to the people of SC for the way they voted. They needed to tell us face- to-face and be held accountable for their votes.

Q: Senator Scott held a town hall this past weekend, but it was announced the night before; was an add-on to Representative Sanford’s town hall; and was a four hour drive from where you live. As a concerned constituent, how did that make you feel, and do you know if Scott or Graham plan to hold other town hall?

Senator Scott announced a town hall 16 hours before it was to be held, and it wasn’t his own town hall. It seemed like a statement to pacify the voters. I did get an email yesterday that he’s scheduling another town hall this Saturday in Charleston. It’s still far away from where I live, but at least he is hosting one, which is a step in the right direction. Perhaps he’ll host another one closer to where I live.

But Senator Lindsey Graham: I’ve still not heard from him. I’ve sent his staff two emails since creating the petition, and I’ve heard nothing back. But I just learned that he’ll be holding a town hall on CNN with John McCain on March 1st at George Washington University. I guess his home state people just can’t compete with the national media.

But Senator Lindsey Graham: I’ve still not heard from him. I’ve sent his staff two emails since creating the petition, and I’ve heard nothing back. But I just learned that he’ll be holding a town hall on CNN with John McCain on March 1st at George Washington University. I guess his home state people just can’t compete with the national media.

Q: You voted for both Scott and Graham, and yet there’s the public perception that only Democrats are pushing for town hall meetings right now. How might you respond to that assumption?

I’m an independent voter. I vote for the best candidate. Most people like to put labels on people because it makes it easy to just say this is Democratic outrage. The assumption is that we’re a group of people who are outraged that we lost the election, and now we’re just trying to make as much noise as possible. But we are concerned citizens representing a variety of groups who are finally speaking out about the things that matter to us.

Q: What are you and your family, friends, and neighbors concerned about right now in this current political atmosphere? What are you hearing from people who aren’t paid protesters, activists, etc.?

One thing that is most concerning is immigration. I teach children who are truly frightened that when they get home from school their parents might be gone. Some students have even left “Goodbye” notes to their teachers in their desks because they are not sure they will be back the next day. They think that at any minute they are going to be deported. These are children that were born in America. They are terrified. The Affordable Health Care Act is something that is also of concern. What will happen if it is repealed? Many people depend on the ACA to be alive.

One thing that is most concerning is immigration. I teach children who are truly frightened that when they get home from school their parents might be gone. Some students have even left “Goodbye” notes to their teachers in their desks because they are not sure they will be back the next day. They think that at any minute they are going to be deported. These are children that were born in America. They are terrified.

Q: If there aren’t more town halls set up, do you have next steps, and how can people support what you’re trying to do in South Carolina?

Several people have reached out to me about going ahead and scheduling a town hall without a senator — to set a date, set the agenda, send them an invitation, and if they show up, great , and if they don’t we’ll do the town hall without them. I’m trying to give them time to schedule a town hall on their own first. But if they don’t, I’ll probably proceed with planning a town hall with or without our senators.

How can people help? By becoming involved in the issues at hand in our country, and by being well-informed and not politically apathetic. Our voices have power; look at what my voice has done. My favorite quote is by Dr. Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I’ve chosen to not be silent anymore about the things that matter most to me. I think more people need to use their voice to make changes that are needed for the good of us all.

A.J. Walton is a Sr. Communications Manager at Change.org