A Congressional Town Hall in a Purple District
On August 31st, Congressman John Faso, in his first term in New York’s 19th District, held his first public town hall with constituents at the Esopus Town Hall in northeastern Ulster County, nearly seven months after he first took office. During ordinary political times this would be a non-event, as riveting as cable T.V. coverage of your town board’s meeting. But these are not ordinary political times. NY’s 19th is a rare district; it is actually competitive. Faso won with 54 percent of the vote in 2016. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s abysmal performance as president, eight potential challengers have lined up, seeking to take on the freshman congressman in 2018.
Many Republicans in Congress across the country have been heavily criticized for not holding open town hall meetings to discuss the house majority policy agenda, Donald Trump’s offensive language, behavior and views, or the controversial initiatives of the Trump administration in health care, federal budget cuts, immigration, tax policy and other policy areas. In response, Republicans argued that these meetings were not venues for serious civil exchange, but opportunities for abusive confrontation by organized opposition on the left.
Entrenched incumbents in gerrymandered districts may get awa y with this position. But Faso is not an entrenched incumbent. He is a freshman in a competitive seat. Moreover, he has taking a lead role in the debate in New York State on repeal and replacement of Obamacare, earning the focused enmity of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Despite hundreds of meetings with constituents in the district and Washington, the failure to hold town hall meetings gave the other side an issue: Faso’s alleged lack of accessibility and insufficient representation of all people in the district.
Move Forward New York was organized in the 19th CD by newly aroused citizen activists in the wake of the Trump victory. The group claims 1900 members. Its mission is “…promoting social justice, preserving civil rights, and ensuring environmental conservation by encouraging participation in the political process on all levels through education, collaboration, and activism.” One of its primary goals, according to Glenn Geher, a founding member and my SUNY New Paltz colleague, was to create a public forum at which Faso would appear and take questions on his votes and views on a range of policy matters and on the president’s performance.
Once the congressman agreed, determining the details of the town hall event became akin to deciding the shape of the table in the Paris Peace accords during the Vietnam War. The Move Forward leadership and the Congressman’s staff had to agree to ground rules: How long would the meeting be? Where would it be held? How many constituents could attend? Who would they be? Who would preside? How would questions be gathered, vetted, asked and followed up?
Negotiating these specifics was done while anti-Faso activists strongly objected to holding any meeting that would be limited at all in size and accessibility, or allow the congressman some degree of control of content or process. Critics contended that by agreeing to a setting in which some attendees were selected by the congressman’s staff, some by the sponsor and others admitted from the general public, Move Forward was unintentionally helping Faso. Simply holding the town hall meeting, they said, would deny critics the argument in 2018 that Faso was inaccessible and “didn’t do town halls.”
Mercifully, I had nothing to do with any of the early planning. I came into the picture when Ryan McAlister, a member of the Congressman’s staff, asked me if I would moderate the event. I’ve known, respected and liked John Faso for many years. We were both elected Hudson Valley Republicans in the 1980’s and 1990’s — while I was head of the county government he was minority leader of the NYS Assembly. I backed John strongly for election to Congress. He and his staff trusted me and thought the other side would find me OK: a professor, well known in the community, no longer an active partisan.
Some Move Forward members were not sure I’d be sufficiently neutral. They therefore wanted two moderators. I am not a fan of diffusing responsibility, and was a bit put off by the implication that I was unable to be unbiased, but in the end I agreed. Their selection to join me in the effort was one of Move Forward’s founding leaders, Debra Clinton, a former student of mine, a school principal and a terrific choice for this role. We met, and established a plan on how we would work together.
Protesters lined the road to the event. There was a profusion of hand-made signs, and a major police presence. But inside, it turned out that there was not much moderating to do. We got started, and I expressed our expectations for order and civility; Deb set out our planned process. Deb and I chose pre-submitted questions from topically labeled folders, but not in advance. Constituents then came forward and asked each question directly to the Congressman. Glenn Geher kept control of the mike. The Congressman more or less ran things, and did it well.
Deb and I took turns choosing questions as the meeting proceeded. The effect: I could not listen attentively to the answers. I did remind the crowd of the need for order and civility once, but actually mostly let clapping and calling out go as the evening went on. I’ve been in the political hot seat more than a few times myself, and judged that without some outlet my repeated interventions might have stoked the fire. Letting it smolder seemed preferable. One or two particularly offensive people in the audience got under my skin, but each time as I reached for the mike Deb was a calming presence. Veteran journalist and Ulster County political commentator Hugh Reynolds’ critique after the event was spot on; as moderating goes my performance was mediocre. But at least I did not make things worse.
Questions and questioners were mostly hostile. Faso managed the situation well. He is deeply experienced, exhaustively informed on the issues, very nimble and very smart. But most of the audience was not having any of it. John’s explanations of his vote on denying funding for Planned Parenthood, for example, based upon the nature of omnibus legislation and the process in Congress fell on deaf ears. Most present thought of the congressman as an autonomous actor, not a member of a deliberative body and a majority party caucus in which tradeoffs are necessary. But even when he and the crowd agreed, such as on DACA, he only won silence, not approval. On this night, the best Faso might have hoped for was grumbling instead of shouting.
Nor would it have been a good idea for him to make a great effort to convert adversaries. Faso had some core supporters in the crowd. The county Republican leader, for example, criticized me for not selecting any of his side’s questions. Looking back, he was probably right; my effort to neutrally choose questions on the hottest issues of the day fueled Move Forward’s post-facto claim that “Not a single person who came up asking a question came out as supportive of Mr. Faso or his voting record.” Nonetheless, Faso did a good job of maintaining his equanimity under fire, and even found ways to say what he came to say. For instance, he spoke passionately about the need to force a state takeover of Medicaid costs as a way to achieve at least some property tax relief, one of Faso’s key campaign promises. These were mostly not his voters, and having lost the election, they did not seem to realize that they had a Republican congressman who was doing substantially what he promised he would do.
Congressman Faso entered the lion’s den and came away a bit bloodied perhaps, but surely unbowed. A sort of win.
Move Forward, a fledgling organization, got the congressman to do what he hadn’t previously done, and could credibly claim that it gave away nothing on the toughness of the questioning that occurred. So a win, there too.
Win/win. But sadly, America is still losing. In the end this was entirely an evening of adversarial position taking. I doubt if any mind was changed (or even opened) on any matter of substance. Which is why the nation has such a political identity crisis. Our country needs town halls to be conversations, not confrontations (even civil ones) or shouting matches. Yes, we need to agree on differences, but also to have a willingness to find common ground where we can find it, whether on taxes, immigration, or responding to natural disasters. In fact, each time we do this we will take a step toward creating an environment in which we can tackle other (perhaps tougher) issues, as well, issues that ideological purity, placards and protest at town halls will never solve.