Wednesday night, members of Congressional District 11 met in Bay Ridge for the political event that they’ve been demanding for months: a live, public town hall forum.
Organized by progressive activist groups Fight Back Bay Ridge, the structure mirrored other town halls, with a panel of experts, Q & A, timekeepers, and some extras like fact-checkers, social media hookups, and goodie bags.
But the striking difference between was that their representative, Congressman Dan Donovan, didn’t show up.
Though the Republican Congressman was invited (Donovan is the sole Republican in NY’s 13-person congressional delegation), he declined. During Donovan’s Monday night telephone town hall, announced last week, he explained his decision to not attend. “Because they’re disruptive forums,” he said. “I find [tele-town halls] to be a more effective way of communicating vs town halls where people shout at one another.”
“We keep trying to tell him that we’re not trying to beat him up,” said organizer Sally McMahon, who has met with Donovan to deliver this message. “We need a community forum where we can tell him how we feel about the Muslim ban and ACA — not storm the citadel.”
However, Donovan’s staff still doesn’t see it that way. “The true intentions of these protest groups is finally coming to light,” said Donovan’s communication director Patrick Ryan about the event. “Their goal is to create a media and fundraising spectacle instead of engaging in substantive conversations.” (This has been Donovan’s stance since the post-presidential election Chamber of Commerce event where protestors showed up.)
“[Constituents] are entitled to give him a hard time but they wanted to turn it into a media circus,” Liam McCabe, Republican candidate for the 43rd City Council.
Despite the Barnum- and Bailey-level fears, the event was actually quite tame. Organizers handed out a goodie bag with emoji sign for participation, a ‘wish you were here’ postcard addressed to Donovan, and a magnet reminding constituents to vote. Two fact checkers from FBBR spent about 10 hours learning about Donovan’s legislative and voting history to act as his absentee voice — based on the public record.
“An informed and engaged constituency is a powerful constituency,” said Fight Back Bay Ridge co-founder Sally McMahon to kick off the evening.
The room was filled with voters from Bay Ridge to Sheepshead Bay to Staten Island to discuss topics ranged from Trump’s proposed budget cuts to HUD and the EPA, the NY Healthcare Act, reproductive rights, protecting public schools, tenants rights, immigration reform, environmental concerns, and more.
While some asked how to boot Donovan out of office, it wasn’t uniformly a Donovan-bashing fest.
Mark Hannay, director at Metro NY Healthcare for All, gave Donovan credit for standing up to pressure from the Republican party to vote ‘no’ last month on the proposed healthcare bill. “That was not an easy position to take, and we thank him for that,” said Hannay.
For the panelists, the avenues for fighting back against cuts to city funding, healthcare, and environmental rights include protests, organizing, and taking legal action. “I feel proud to be a lawyer at this moment,” said Kit Kennedy, director at the National Resources Defence Council.
Many constituents expressed concern over Betsy DeVos’ predilection for vouchers over supporting public schools. “I’m not 14 yet, but how can I help protect public schools?” asked Althea, a concerned soon-to-be voter.
“According to a previous interview, Donovan supports school vouchers,” piped in Andrea, the event fact checker, to punctuate the discussion.
“We are in the era of reading the fine print,” warned Zakiyah Shaakir-Ansari, director from NY State Alliance for Quality Education. “The devil is in the details.”
Above all, the goal of the event was to encourage conversation and ask questions, said organizer Rebecca Goldberg.
“At the chamber meeting protest, we captured the spirit of resistance we were feeling at that moment. But we’ve evolved since then,” said Goldberg.
“The only Republican in the room”
But some feel that the event was lacking in healthy debate — and inclusion — from both sides of the aisle.
“They didn’t call anyone from the Republican world and didn’t have any panelists that represent our interests. It was more of a leftist pow wow or rally against Trump and Donovan,” said Liam McCabe, a former aid to Donovan and a Republican City Council candidate. “This was an agenda-driven rally as opposed to a town hall.”
McCabe admits that Republican events don’t reach across the aisle either, and that’s something that needs to change.
Organizers reached out to the community grassroots-style, they said, handing out fliers in redder parts of the district like Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and Bath Beach. “We don’t want it to be just our facebook friends,” said Sally McMahon. “We want everyone to come no matter what they think or believe.”
McCabe wasn’t afraid to represent the Republican voice and asked the first question of the night. “How many people in this room voted for Trump?” he asked coyly.
The audience responded with boos, angry emoji signs, and even brief shouting before McCabe moved on to his question targeting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “disastrous policy on homelessness.”
But to the attendees who accused McCabe of being disruptive, he responded, “The one thing I disrupted was their narrative of Republicans as the bad guys,” he told BKLYNER. “But I wasn’t afraid and I asked an uncomfortable question.”
Watch the full town hall video below:
No confrontation — or discussion — at Donovan’s tele-town hall
Two days before the constituent-organized live event, Donovan hosted a tele-town hall that reached 13,524 listeners out of more than 49,700 households dialed. After about 10 minutes of introduction and background, listeners had about 50 minutes to call in with questions and be added to the cue.
Constituents asked Donovan about
- healthcare (“Healthcare isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an American issue,” he said),
- Planned Parenthood (“The law passed in the senate was to allow states to make decisions themselves, so women of New York have nothing to worry about”),
- sanctuary cities (I’m not a believer in sanctuary cities…you can’t just pick and choose which laws you want to enforce. But NYC…shouldn’t lose federal security funding over it),
- Trump’s taxes (“We should let those [Congressional and FBI] investigations take place and withhold judgment until then”), and more.
While the call was tightly organized, there was no room for back and forth discussion — something progressive organizers listed as one of the pitfalls of the format. One caller expressed concern about deporting illegal immigrants who have committed minor crimes (under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions) and separating them from their children:
“We can’t ban people from our country because of where they came from…We are not going to punish 20-year-olds whose families brought them here as children to escape persecution. For those people who have come here and committed a violent crime, I’m in favor of deportation,” responded Donovan, not mentioning minor crimes.
Donovan stressed that his job is to represent all of his constituents, regardless of party politics. “Sometimes partisanship gets in the way of good governing,” he said.
The week before, Donovan did meet with constituents to answer questions live — but at a private event at an exclusive Staten Island country club, reports SI Live.