PolitiFact: Cruz touts his ‘town halls,’ but were they really?

He’s not Waldo. But could it be that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz doesn’t get personally grilled by constituents very often?

Cruz, poised to seek re-election as Texas’ junior Republican senator in 2018, hardly has a reputation for avoiding attention. After all, he ran for president shortly after making waves in Washington and held on as the last viable Republican alternate to Donald Trump.

Regardless, the Houston lawyer was told during the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival about a Democratic challenger’s suggestion that Cruz hadn’t visited small Texas towns during the term he won in 2012.

“Do you do enough interaction with your constituents, Sen. Cruz?” interviewer Evan Smith asked.

Cruz replied: “That is a huge part of the job. In 2017, I’ve done 17 town halls.”

We wondered about that, finding that Cruz’s count largely turned on one’s definition of “town hall.”

A town hall, Cruz spokesman Phil Novack told us, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an event at which a public official or political candidate addresses an audience by answering questions posed by individual members.”

By that definition, Novack suggested, town halls don’t have to be open to just anybody to ask anything.

Novack told us Cruz had held 19 town halls with Texas constituents in 2017, all “organized by third parties who determined attendees, where” the senator “has taken unvetted questions from anyone in the crowd — at businesses, factories, chambers of commerce, and in public venues.”

Novack said three of the gatherings “were open for the general public to register and attend.” Those, he said, were hosted by Concerned Veterans for America, a group that seeks to shift veterans hospitals from the federal government to a nonprofit corporation. Eleven of the 19 events were open to reporters, Novack said, and four were aired live.

Novack provided us a list of the events, and we confirmed them through news reports and video.

A Concerned Veterans for America spokesman, Jim Fellinger, told us each CVA event with Cruz was open to the public by registration, without the group screening out anybody who registered.

“Participants were given the opportunity to ask questions by submitting question cards that were handed out at the beginning of the event,” Fellinger said. “These events involved a discussion about bringing greater health care choice to the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Fellinger pointed us to video posts of the CVA events showing that Cruz each time took questions via a moderator, who recognized a few individuals to speak directly to Cruz. We didn’t spot any questions straying from health care.

We also asked Novack to share a list of Cruz’s 2017 events in Texas that were open to the public without registration — where anyone could ask a question on any topic. Novack replied by email: “I appreciate your efforts to move the goalposts but we’ll stick with the premise of your original question to us” about town halls.

Next, we spoke with several experts about whether Cruz’s events should be considered town halls.

A Duquesne University professor, Mike Dillon, replied: “The term ‘town hall’ implies an event is open to the entire community and that competing ideas will be welcomed and discussed. It seems these town halls are open only to the people from the sections of ‘town’ that support Ted Cruz. These are scripted pseudo-events, not genuine public forums.”

Ashley Trim, a Pepperdine University administrator, agreed that an “employee town hall” is far from the original use of the “town hall” term. Still, Trim told us, it’s not uncommon for employers to have or host Q&A sessions and call them town halls.

But University of Alabama political scientist Joe Smith commented, “Employees know that their employer has arranged for and endorsed the visit, and that therefore assertive questions are not welcome.”

Mark Rozell, a George Mason University dean, called the listed events mostly “quite different” from traditional open town halls held by members of Congress.

“So it’s apples and oranges here,” Rozell said, adding: “The senator’s office cannot just slap the label ‘town hall’ on site visits to factories and companies and then claim he’s holding a lot of town halls. That’s misleading.”

Our ruling:

Cruz, asked if he interacts enough with constituents, said: “In 2017, I’ve done 17 town halls” in Texas.

The events Cruz attended from April through August demonstrate that the term “town hall” can be stretched every which way, even to events not open to the public. All told, it looks to us as if Cruz took questions at gatherings of selected constituents, mostly business employees, with the three veterans events open to members of the public who registered.

We rate this claim Half True.

Ted Cruz

Statement: “In 2017, I’ve done 17 town halls.”

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