Rep. Paul Tonko blocked off two hours Monday evening for a town hall meeting with constituents.
Then overtime began.
For more than two hours hours, the Amsterdam Democrat took questions on, among other topics, environmental policies pushed by President Donald Trump’s administration, the manufacturing workforce, efforts to repeal of the Affordable Care Act and hate crimes that have gained considerable attention since the election.
He then prepared to take one-on-one meetings with more than a dozen constituents.
Though interest in the Tonko town hall, held at Schenectady County Community College, was just as high as interest in similar forums held by his Republican colleagues, it was comparatively tranquil.
It also was more congenial than Tonko’s last major town hall — a Bethlehem event held in 2009 that included vocal vitriol against and support of the yet-to-be-passed Affordable Care Act.
On Monday, he was greeted by raucous cheering. As he took the stage, one woman exclaimed, “Hero!”
Tonko told hundreds of constituents he is looking forward to a conversation with the president that looks ahead at policy, not back at the Electoral College, popular vote and crowd sizes.
“When I have a chance to meet with President Trump, I will share some very strong feelings about climate change, about our stewardship of the environment, about public lands and the importance of preserving those lands, about our stewardship not only with the water and air and soil that we require, but with wildlife, too, showing a deep respect for our ecosystem,” he said.
One person sought input on how constituents can assist Tonko in pushing back against the repeal of Obamacare. The Democrat repeated his stance that a replacement plan must be in statute before lawmakers vote to repeal.
“I say, replace in place before you repeal,” he said. “There’s three standards of acceptance for the repeal package: affordability, accessibility, quality of care. If any of those is denied or reduced, no plan. No approval.”
On the Capital Region economy — for decades supported by, as Tonko put it, a necklace of mill towns — the congressman pointed to the need for hands-on training and retraining an advanced manufacturing workforce.
Asked about recent instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric and persistent bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers nationwide, including in Albany, Tonko took a serious tone.
“We’re not in this business to set that kind of tone,” he said of elected officials. “True leaders bring people together. True leaders respect the diversity that is us, that is America.”
Tonko received sustained applause.
The same kind of fluid, supportive question and answer period isn’t what some Republicans have experienced or should expect at their events as anger persists with the Trump administration’s early actions and some planned GOP majority actions in Congress, such as repeal of the ACA.
MoveOn.org, a website that progressives can use to organize, was billing Tonko’s town hall as an opportunity to “have your voice heard about concerns you have in your community.”
“Democrats need to stand up and protect all Americans,” the event listing stated.
Compare that to what was listed for a town hall meeting/protest being organized for Saturday at Rep. John Faso’s Kinderhook office (to be clear, the congressman hasn’t scheduled an official large town hall forum).
“Protest Congressman Faso’s refusal to speak to constituents,” the listing stated. “Support ACA, PPH. NY CD 19 is a swing district. We need your support!”
(Faso told the Times Union last week that a small constituent meeting setting will be “much more productive than some mass meeting where people stand up and scream”)
“The way to respond to that intensity I think is respect for the people you represent and to approach them with the civility that gives them their space to speak and take it from there,” Tonko told reporters prior to the town hall.
That isn’t to say majority Republicans in the House and Senate do not have support back home that minority Democrats may be finding more easily. On Monday evening, a GoFundMe page set up by Western New York political operative Michael Caputo had nearly reached its $1,600 goal to pay for a billboard in support of Rep. Chris Collins, R-Erie County, after two billboards went up calling Collins out for saying he wouldn’t hold meetings.
Monday’s event was not the first time this year that Tonko has sat down with constituents to discuss the issues du jour. He held a smaller roundtable on the Affordable Care Act in January to solicit the kinds of anecdotes he says are important to include in policy making and debate.
“Otherwise it’s just an accounting ledger, it’s a shell game,” Tonko told reporters. “What we need is to talk about the fabric here, about the individuals who are impacted favorably, negatively, and to make certain that we do the best thing.”
For some constituents, the town hall elicited different emotions. Olivia Berthenolli of Albany said the forum was upsetting as constituents enumerated the many issues the country faces.
Christine Witkowski, a lifelong Democrat, said that while the town hall did not come with many new revelations, it was an important forum.
“This is democracy in action,” the Scotia woman said. “It gives me hope for our future.”
.@RepPaulTonko before his #Schenectady town hall on why a town hall and why now: pic.twitter.com/AyAlC8MRAw
— Matthew Hamilton (@matt_hamilton10) February 20, 2017