UTICA, NEW YORK — Running for Congress as a Republican incumbent in 2018 is not an easy task. Running for Congress as a Republican in upstate New York in 2018 is, if anything, even more complicated.
New York as a whole is staunchly Democratic, but traveling north, and west, of New York City, the state looks and sounds much more like the Midwest. There are bluer college towns and smaller cities scattered across a half-dozen large congressional districts, as well as large swaths of redder farmland and forest.
Republican incumbents face a perennial challenge governing and campaigning in these districts: Namely, how to be available enough to both represent their constituents and make their pitch to voters. Recently, the fears of town hall chaos, disruptive protesters, or making the odd verbal gaffe in a public setting have led them to hold campaign events open to supporters, business roundtables closed to press, or tours of businesses on private property.
Less than one in five people nationwide approve of Congress, and over the past year congressional Republicans in particular have faced significant deficits on the generic congressional ballot. These prevailing trends have worsened as constituents grow increasingly frustrated about their representatives’ unavailability.
Criticism of the lack of town hall events has not been completely ignored. Last year, Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) routinely held small group meetings called “Coffee with Claudia.” She toyed with the format (five people for ten minutes each, or 20 people for an hour), but to get in, one would have to reserve a spot in advance. One open event Tenney held last year happened after months of delays. Rep. John Faso (R-NY) has hosted scattered events open to the public. Rep. John Katko (R-NY) has held closed-press business roundtables. Telephone town halls, where questions can be pre-screened, have also become popular. It is often difficult to find public announcements of events Tenney, Faso, or Katko plan to attend before they happen.
Asked by a constituent last February to hold an open town hall, Faso argued town halls were a bad idea. “I’ve seen around the country the ways the town halls have been conducted, they’re not productive and nobody believes they’re productive,” Faso said. Katko made a similar argument last month. Tenney said “paid protesters” disrupted in-person open town halls.
Democratic challengers have been far less shy about holding open forums. This could be due to the fact that these challengers aren’t defending a seat and thus have less to lose by holding town halls and contending with difficult questions. It could also be representative of the fact that these Democratic candidates have differences in values as they relate to representative government, their self-perception, and the reason why they are running for office in the first place.
Anthony Brindisi, Tenney’s Democratic opponent, said Tenney’s sole town hall “was sponsored by her campaign, so the email went out to people on her campaign email list, and we got wind of it, and she finally put it out to the media.” He said it lasted an hour, people had to write their questions down first, and the moderator selected which ones Tenney would answer. “We’ve been doing the opposite,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of town halls.” He committed to doing one in each county if elected and decided he should get started before the election.
He has held open town halls in every county of the 22nd district and has committed to continuing the practice every year he is in office, should he win. Tenney’s supporters and staff have attended these forums, sometimes recording the goings-on or even putting questions of their own to the candidate. This has not seemed to bother Brindisi at all, even when Tenney shares grainy clips of him speaking about how to get to universal health care coverage in front of his town hall’s attendees.
Antonio Delgado, the Democrat running in the 19th district, has echoed these sentiments. His Twitter bio reads, “Working hard and showing up everywhere.”
On Fridays since early 2017, in snow or heat, local activists discouraged by the scarce number of open town hall-style constituent or campaign events offered by Rep. John Faso (R-NY) have gathered outside his district office in downtown Kingston to protest in an event they’ve dubbed “Faso Friday.”
“If there’s an event, like with childhood separation, people knew where to go every Friday,” said Saugerties resident Kevin Freeman, who has worked with local group Citizen Action. “It’s become kind of a public arena.”
A crowd several dozen strong, skewing older and whiter, gathered on the sidewalk outside Faso’s office last Friday, carrying signs and offering friendly waves to the mostly-supportive honks of cars passing by. A small band plays protest songs. Some go inside the building to the glassed-in area staffed by district Faso representatives, who accept petitions and statements with terse but polite nods.
These events have not always gone smoothly. In March, a constituent was charged with trespassing during an immigration protest event, owing to a dispute over where the protest was allowed to take place.
The local activist street band “Tin Horn Uprising” formed in early 2017 in response to President Donald Trump’s election to protest his positions on gun violence, immigration, and other issues. Woodstock resident Bonnie Meadow joined the band after picking up a french horn player. She says the band started “because we felt there was a need to make some noise,”
Meadow tells ThinkProgress that she knows exactly what she would say to Faso, should he ever grace the gathering with his presence: “I’m really surprised you’re here, don’t lie to us, you represent us, listen to us because time and time again with the health care vote, people he looked in the eye and said ‘I hear you, I will vote to support the Affordable Care Act’ and then he voted to take it down.”
“We don’t feel he’s representing us,” she says, “he’s representing the rich folks.”
Marcia Thompson, Anne Gordon, Virginia Cannon, and Rea Stein came from their retirement community in New Paltz, NY to join the protest because, as Cannon says, “We’ve got to get rid of John Faso, he’s a Trumpster, votes like 90 percent with Trump, unless they give him permission to, like on the tax cut.”
Faso recently came to their community, Woodland Pond, where Stein said he answered questions, and was “very smooth, very slick.” “He’s refused to have town halls, he’s very selective in where he will meet, he’s afraid he’s going to be attacked.” Stein said they asked him about his votes on the tax cut and health care repeal, but Faso deflected. “He’s very good at deflecting,” said Stein.
“All public officeholders try to manage public image in a certain way,” said Luke Perry, chairman and professor of government at Utica College and director of The Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research. “Add to that the current moment where Republican incumbents are trying to make sense of these grassroots liberal organizations that started rapidly forming immediately after the president was elected, and I think there’s distrust there, skepticism, and concern about what that might mean for them. During the campaign, not being able to have control over who speaks, and about what, in a public setting can be a little unnerving. One poorly-worded response or statement can go viral.”
Katko’s motorcycle town hall tour
Rep. John Katko (R-NY) has also faced criticism from constituents for not holding open town hall events. On Saturday, with less than a day’s notice, Katko announced that he would be holding a “motorcycle town hall tour.”
“Now, Katko’s not restricting who’s coming to these events but relying on an element of surprise, it seems like, to interact with constituents,” said Utica College’s Perry.
Accompanied by a group of bikers who are generally very supportive of Katko, the congressman rode his Harley-Davidson to four bars and restaurants in his district. During these events, Katko raffled off campaign t-shirts and hats, as well as the American flags that have flown over the Capitol building. Attendees expecting even brief statements about national or local issues, or the opportunity to ask questions, were left disappointed.
One Weedsport resident, Laureen Lally, heard about the event at the last-minute and came to hear her Katko speak and answer questions. Lally stood out from those in the crowd wearing spiked leather jackets and camo shirts, looking the part of a science teacher, rather than a motorcycle aficionado. “This is not the image he normally portrays,” she said of Katko with a laugh, taking in the bikers surrounding the congressman, a former federal prosecutor.
“He’s here, he’s got people around, and so far I’ve only seen him talk to the crowd he came in with,” Lally said.
Lally was surprised to see Katko going to all this trouble just to mingle with some of his supporters, instead of speaking about issues or taking public questions. “There are a lot of issues that need to be discussed and I want to hear both sides,” she said. She said Weedsport residents want Katko “to give us his viewpoint on things that are going on in Washington.”
“Dana Balter said part of the reason she’s running is Congressman Katko is unapproachable, and if he doesn’t come out to speak pretty soon, I’m going to say, ‘yeah you’re right,'” Lally said.
After his raffle in Weedsport, Katko — who still had everyone’s attention — concluded the event by saying, “There you go, got another stop to go, so.” He then proceeded to make a slow exit, saying hello and shaking hands with the dozens of men and women in biker regalia, as well as a few bemused locals sitting at the bar.
“You can quote me, ‘huge disappointment’, Dana has my vote,” Lally said. “She talks to people.”
Lally told ThinkProgress that she was a Democrat, and had been impressed with Katko’s opponent, Dana Balter, but still wanted to hear from Katko about things she was concerned about in Washington. “I’d like him to address some of those issues,” she said. “And he didn’t even talk to us or take questions.”
No protesters disrupted the visits, and one lone person with a sign showed up at the end of the last stop.
Balter has been doing a town hall in every county in the district — the most recent one a well-attended gathering in the Williamson Public Library. There, Balter spoke for about 25 minutes and took more than a dozen questions — many of them friendly but several critical residents got their questions in the mix as well. Balter handled each question like a seasoned and engaging public speaker, perhaps aided by her experience teaching.
To Katko, his way is better. In a local news interview at the last stop in Baldwinsville, Katko described the tour as a “nice different way to reach out to people.” He said that at all four events, “people ask me questions about politics,” and that the great thing about touring around with dozens of friendly supporters on motorcycles is the “friendship and camaraderie” he found.
Indeed, the supporters in leather vests who would speak to a reporter were big fans of Katko and most had trouble thinking of areas of policy or political disagreement. “He’s the only politician I’ve ever seen who made a promise and kept it,” one said with a smile. “He said he was going to learn to ride a motorcycle and he did.”
The bikers had a great time, but they may have scared off hopeful town hall participants.
“I was actually coming to see if he was going to have an actual, open Q&A sort of thing but this is just mingling among his friends,” said Baldwinsville resident Jaime Bodenlos. “This is really disappointing and obviously I don’t feel comfortable saying anything because the crowd’s a little, you know.”
“I was hoping he would open up a discussion about something of importance about our district and the things that are happening in the administration but he’s doing none of that,” said Bodenlos.
“He’s just been unavailable,” Bodenlos continued. “I’ve been trying to reach him since November, 2016, and I just get those form letters in response, and I get put on these phone town hall things but I never get to ask my question because they’re pre-screened.”
“It’s all absolute bullshit,” she said. “This guy’s supposed to represent me. We’ve got bikers here chanting ‘build that wall’ and that doesn’t represent me. He’s representing these biker buddies.”
“This isn’t a very friendly environment for people who disagree with him,” she concluded.
“I was hoping he would have an open sort of thing, but it’s just stroking his ego, giving away his t-shirts. This guy’s a joke.”