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Minnesota lawmakers turn to tech to stay in touch with constituents because of coronavirus

Minnesota lawmakers turn to tech to stay in touch with constituents because of coronavirus

State and federal lawmakers scaling back most personal contact during the coronavirus pandemic are ramping up their reliance on technology to keep lines of communication open with constituents.

With town halls off the table, access to state and national Capitols restricted and in-person meetings curtailed, legislators across the nation are turning to conference calls, video streams and social media to share updates and answer questions about a rapidly changing situation.

“It’s important we all find creative ways to adapt during this critical time,” Rep. Dean Phillips said in an e-mail encouraging constituents to reach out to his staff via e-mail or phone.

Phillips, who represents the western Twin Cities suburbs, partnered with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith to host a coronavirus briefing call with Minnesotans on Monday evening. More than 8,000 people tuned in via phone or online audio stream to hear lawmakers and public health experts answer worried questions about the virus. Topics ranged from handling packages (wash your hands after you open mail, an epidemiologist urged) to potential congressional action to boost the cratering economy. DFL Rep. Angie Craig, whose district covers all or part of six south metro counties, held a call of her own, circulating a Google form to collect constituent questions and concerns ahead of the call.

Republican Rep. Pete Stauber joined local officials in Duluth for a Monday briefing that was streamed live on Facebook. On Tuesday, he held a conference call with veteran service officers from across his sprawling northern Minnesota district. The congressman is also checking in with constituents in affected sectors, including schools, public health and small businesses, and working to put together a teletown hall.

“Coronavirus certainly represents a difficult time in American history,” Stauber wrote in “Coronavirus Update” to constituents this week. “Nevertheless, when faced with challenges, our nation consistently answers fear with courage, chaos with solutions, and panic with leadership. Rest assured, we will continue to do just that.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a prolific social media user, has been hosting live video updates on Instagram and tweeting in Somali to reach a range of residents of her diverse Minneapolis district. The office is also e-mailing constituents and adding resources to its website.

“We’re trying to use every tool in the toolbox to communicate with people,” a spokesman said.

Still, it can prove difficult to reach high risk groups such as elderly Minnesotans less likely to use online platforms. Phillips’ office said he reached out to thousands of seniors over the weekend with a recorded message informing them about the Monday evening phone briefing. Rural areas also present unique challenges. DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents a massive swath of western Minnesota, is having conversations with staff about the best strategies for reaching constituents with updates.

“It’s a huge district, we’ve been working with that all along. Trying to keep up is one thing, but there’s just a new barrage of stuff every day,” said Sue Dieter, a spokeswoman for Peterson. “We’re trying to assess what’s already being done. It’s changing so fast.”

State lawmakers with fewer resources and smaller staffs are taking similar steps. Access to the State Capitol and surrounding buildings is restricted and face-to-face constituent meetings will be limited under new guidelines announced this week. But top lawmakers say offices remain open — at least virtually — to all Minnesotans.

“Thankfully technology makes me available to the public without putting anyone at risk,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “Our phones are still available, voice mails will be answered. You can send us e-mail, you can text me. I’ll be on Facebook an I’ll be on Twitter and I think that’s what you’ll find from all the legislators.”

Some aren’t waiting for constituents to come to them. By late Tuesday, all members of the House Republican Caucus had sent at least one coronavirus update providing information on state action such as school closures and expanded unemployment benefits. DFL Sen. Matt Little, meanwhile, answered questions during a Facebook livestream. The Lakeville Democrat posted links to resources such as signing up for unemployment benefits in the comments field.

It’s not just coronavirus concerns filling officials’ voice mails, inboxes and DMs. Staff for lawmakers field a variety of questions and issues as part of their constituent work, helping voters navigate everything from issues with veterans’ benefits or Social Security checks to complaints about roads and schools.

“If there are coronavirus-related constituent concerns, those should be dealt with immediately and forcefully. If it’s other things, regular casework, I still think its important,” said Gregg Peppin, a former top aide to Minnesota House Republicans. “It’s one thing they can really do to instill confidence that yes this is a major situation but the trains are running on time, we can still function.”