While they fielded questions about hot topics that included immigration, health care and gun control at their first debate Monday night, Jackie Walorski and Mel Hall spent more time echoing their TV attack ads and trying to portray each other as out of touch with 2nd District Hoosiers.
It’s a prominent dynamic in the congressional race: Hall is tagged as a “DC insider” who worked for a lobbying firm, and “Washington Walorski” is labeled as invisible in her district.
Hall, the Democratic challenger, on Monday repeatedly called the incumbent Republican a “career politician” who has not held a town hall meeting with constituents for five years. “We don’t see her,” he declared.
Walorski contrasted Hall’s image as a farmer in his campaign messaging — he grew up on a farm in Grant County before leaving for college but a TV ad shows a modern-day Hall closing a barn door with his sleeves rolled up — with the reality that he lived in a million-dollar Ritz-Carlton condominium in Washington while working for a law firm that lobbied for special interests.
Do the campaign attacks match up with the facts?
During the debate, Hall said he had never lobbied a day in his life. A spokeswoman for the law firm in question, Dentons, issued a statement saying he was not a registered lobbyist while acting as a senior advisor to the firm, though it did not detail the nature of his work.
In an interview Wednesday, Hall said he met executives with Dentons and many hospitals while he was CEO at South Bend-based Press Ganey, the health care patient survey firm, from 2000 to 2009. Hal first started working for Press Ganey in 1993, after he earned a doctoral degree at Notre Dame.
In 2010, Hall said, he moved to Washington and rented an apartment there to be near his younger son, Matthew, while still serving as board chairman of Press Ganey.
While living in Washington, Hall said, Dentons asked him to advise hospital executives on “patient engagement,” work that Hall said was unpaid.
“When I decided to no longer be the CEO at Press Ganey, there were all sorts of folks who reached out, and I did speaking and what not for a lot of folks,” Hall said.
By the mid-2000s, up to 75 percent of hospital executives’ pay was partly tied to patient satisfaction scores, up from just 3 percent a decade earlier, he said. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also had started tying reimbursement rates to patient satisfaction ratings, he said.
In 2014, Hall bought the Ritz-Carlton condo, valued at $1.4 million, according to Washington, D.C., property tax records. He said he only lived in it for about a month before he moved to Nashville to become CEO of SpecialtyCare, a provider of clinical services to hospitals.
Records show he still owns the condo. Hall said no one is living in it, and he moved from Nashville to South Bend last year. His campaign said he moved back in spring or early summer of 2017; he announced his candidacy in October of that year.
As for Walorski, her office did not reply to The Tribune’s request to interview her Wednesday on the issue of her presence in the district. But she said during the debate that she has been “everywhere” in the district despite not holding town hall meetings. Walorski stopped holding those types of meetings after 2013, her first year in office.
In interviews, she has dismissed the criticism and pointed to other forms of interaction with constituents. She has also pointed out that she grew up in the area and still calls Jimtown home.
“I always listen to the people I serve,” Walorski said when WSBT anchor and moderator Bob Montgomery asked why she hasn’t held town hall meetings and whether she would commit to holding them in the future.
“I’m in Indiana whenever I’m not in D.C. I spend a lot of time in factories and businesses and farms, schools, medical providers, community organizations, I am out there listening,” she said. “I travel around the district and I have an open-door policy. There’s a lot of times where folks want to come in and talk to their representative in private. I honor that privacy. If anybody calls our office and says, ‘I want to talk to the congresswoman,’ they are absolutely open to do that, and I do hold office hours.”