Congress, spooked by summer town halls, tries jobs fairs instead

The health-care reform protests of 2009 have made members of Congress worried about holding traditional summer town halls. As an alternative, some are holding jobs fairs.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D) pf Florida (left) talks with a Miami worker who is looking for work in maintenance or plumbing at a jobs fair hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus in Miami Tuesday.

With unemployment locked in double digits in many congressional districts, the defining political event of the summer for many members of Congress is becoming the jobs fair, sponsored by lawmakers to connect constituents with actual hiring prospects.

The concept has taken off with conservative Republicans as well as liberal Democrats serving some of the poorest communities in America.

The political advantages are two-fold: The events cast members as doing something about the nation’s jobs crisis while at the same time shielding them from public confrontations with angry voters. It means town-hall meetings – once a staple of the congressional summer season – are now in decline thanks to the testy summer of 2009, when health-care protests helped launch the tea party movement and provided endless grist for opposition campaign ads.

The new formula is one that leaders on both sides of the aisle are encouraging other colleagues to pursue. But some public-interest groups charge that jobs fairs are no substitute for the face-to-face contact essential in a democracy.

“Our concern is that elected officials are only hearing from their respective partisan bases and will not expose themselves to criticism. Politics is about competing ideas, and everyone should have a seat at the table,” said William Galston, a cofounder of No Labels, an independent group promoting bipartisanship in Washington, in a statement.

About half of Republicans and two-thirds of Democrats said that they had no town-hall meetings scheduled over the August recess, according to a survey released Aug. 21 by No Labels.

In Miami Tuesday, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) wrapped up the fourth of five jobs fairs planned this summer in high-unemployment neighborhoods. Some 120 employers participated, including local government, offering about 3,000 job prospects. Previous jobs fairs were held this month in Atlanta, Detroit, and Cleveland. The CBC hosts a jobs fair in Los Angeles on Aug. 31.

“Unemployment in south Florida is no longer a crisis, but an epidemic,” said freshman Rep. Frederica Wilson (D) of Florida in a statement before Miami’s jobs fair on Tuesday. “It’s time to take matters into our own hands and provide real opportunities for people to get back to work.”

Unemployment in Miami-Dade County is 12.5 percent, but black unemployment is 29 percent in Miami's Liberty City and 26 percent in another Miami neighborhood, Little Haiti – and even higher among black men, says an aide to Congresswoman Wilson.

A former state lawmaker, Wilson began developing contacts with local businesses long before coming to Washington. But aides say that she has used contacts with business groups asking for her help in Congress to enlist their participation in jobs fairs.

Freshman Rep. Benjamin Quayle (R) of Arizona told staff as he took office that the No. 1 concern had to be job creation and to schedule events that reflected that. On Aug. 10, he sponsored a jobs fair promising some 6,000 openings in northern Phoenix and neighboring Paradise Valley. While Arizona’s unemployment rate is 9.3 percent, unemployment in Paradise Valley is well above the national average of 9.2 percent.

“It’s difficult for people to travel around to find jobs, especially with high gas prices,” says Congressman Quayle. “Any small thing we can do to help people to get back to work is something we wanted to pursue.”

He also held a forum with local business groups to find out what was preventing them from more hiring. Answer: uncertainty about new government regulation.

In Phoenix, as in the CBC jobs fairs, it’s not clear how many participants actually found a job. “We did hear from some employers who give out offers, and many said they had follow-up interviews,” says Quayle.

Freshman Rep. Jim Renacci (R) of Ohio, a former local businessman and car dealer, began meeting regularly with a local business groups to discuss jobs soon after his upset election in November 2010. Unemployment in his old industrial district has been as high as 14 percent in the last 18 months. He spent several months investigating whether there was enough interest in hiring to make a jobs fair useful.

“It’s difficult around here,” says James Slepian, Congressman Renacci’s chief of staff. “A lot of people looking for jobs do not know where to start, or may have too narrow a focus. But when you put them in front of 100 employers, it opens up opportunities they may not have thought of.”

Renacci’s jobs fair on June 27 was the first in the state sponsored by a member of Congress, aides say.

Congressional leaders would like to see more.

“Jobs are job No. 1 for House Republicans, and members are encouraged to continue hosting these fairs as an effective way to connect job seekers, with job creators, and promote our economic growth policies,” says Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, who chairs the House Republican Conference, in an e-mail.

Democrats have been fighting to get Congress to focus on jobs all year,” says Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, in an e-mail. “House Democrats across the country are having events in their districts of all types – from town halls to job fairs to business visits and many other things.”

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