Roughly three dozen people stood on a sidewalk and in a parking space in front of House Representative Chris Collins's Geneseo office last week, trying to get the Republican Congress member to attend an upcoming forum on the Affordable Care Act.
They might as well have been spitting into a strong wind. Collins has made clear that he's never had a town hall meeting and never will, because people who disagree with him will show up and give him a hard time. He's open to meeting one-on-one with constituents, though, he says.
"What you get are demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you," Collins told Buffalo television station WGRZ. "They are not what you hope they would be, which is a give and take from people actually interested in getting some facts."
Collins spoke to WGRZ about a GoFundMe campaign by Citizens Against Chris Collins. The organization, which is rooted in the Buffalo suburb of East Aurora, raised $3,300 for a billboard to taunt Collins about his reluctance to hold a forum.
- Photo by JEREMY MOULE
- Demonstrators have gathered outside of House Representative Chris Collins's Geneseo office every Tuesday for the past few weeks in an attempt to get him to hold a town hall meeting.
House members, Republican and Democratic, have long used town hall meetings to get face time with their constituents. But right now, droves of people are packing into GOP representatives' forums to unload about the importance of preserving Obamacare, the inhumanity of President Donald Trump's refugee ban, the necessity of protecting Social Security and Medicare, and the possibility of Russian subversion.
But elected officials aren't put in office just to represent the people who voted for them; they need to listen to their critics, too. As Kate Alonzo of Geneseo stood outside of Collins's office last Tuesday, she said that people aren't interested in attacking him; they just want a conversation on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, local environmental issues including wind and solar energy development, and global environmental issues.
"I think we could interest him if we could assure him he wouldn't be burned in effigy," said Jillian Gruber, who organized last week's event.
Sally Wood, also of Geneseo, said that immigration is another issue of local concern, given Trump's hostile rhetoric and actions toward immigrants. Lots of Livingston County farms depend on migrant labor and without the workers, farmers won't be able to produce their crops, she said.
In contrast to Collins, Republican House Representative Tom Reed held four town hall meetings in the rural western part of his Southern Tier district this past Saturday. Both Collins and Reed support Donald Trump, though Collins was the first member of Congress to do so and has been a fixture on news programs defending the president and his cabinet.
Town hall meetings always run the risk of becoming political theater, but the potential is heightened right now. Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz became a cautionary tale for GOP House members last week when footage from his town hall event made its way onto social media and television broadcasts. Among the clips: the crowd cheers on a 10-year-old girl after she asks Chaffetz whether he believes in science, then boos his non-answer.
Chaffetz's event turned out to be more protest than dialogue. Afterward, he claimed that many of the protestors came from outside of his district and were paid to show up, though he offered no proof to back up the allegations.
But even if some did come from the outside, is that a big deal? House members represent local districts, but they make decisions that affect the whole country.
The Collins camp, too, has written off the people calling for open, public meetings with him as left-wing activists, many of whom are from outside of his district. But that's not necessarily true. Many of the people at last week's protest live in Collins's 27th Congressional District, including Gruber, Wood, and Alonzo.
The district starts in suburban Buffalo and stretches through parts or all of Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, Livingston, and Ontario counties. It also includes the Monroe County towns of Hamlin, Wheatland, Rush, and Mendon, as well as a section of Clarkson.
Phil Jones of Geneseo was part of the group in front of Collins's Geneseo office, too, and said that nobody at the gathering was bussed in or paid to be there.
If Collins is worried about activists pinning him down at an event, then the conservative wave that helped put him in office bears some of the blame.
When former President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats were moving the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — through the House and Senate, conservative Tea Party activists basically weaponized Democratic forums.
The purpose of the forums was to build support for the legislation and to solicit input on how to make it better. But conservative groups organized people to attend and disrupt the events.
A Honeoye Falls forum held by former Representative Eric Massa drew so many people that he moved the meeting outdoors, since the building could only hold 100 of the 500 or so people who showed up. And in his case, most of those in attendance were regular people who came to ask questions or voice strong opinions — some against the bill, others for single-payer insurance.
Massa stuck out the frequent heckling and shouting, as well as the arguing between supporters and opponents of the health care reform legislation. He listened to the objections and concerns of critics and relayed them to higher-ups. He also told the crowd that he, too, had concerns and was trying to slow the process down. (Later, Massa resigned his seat during a bizarre scandal that had nothing to do with the health care reform law.)
That, too, was a tense time and some Congress members received threats. During the debate and lead-up to the Congressional vote on health care reform, someone smashed a window at Representative Louise Slaughter's Niagara Falls office; the same thing happened to a few other members — though the incidents were never conclusively connected to Obamacare. (This took place before the districts were redrawn in 2012 and Slaughter's territory looked like earmuffs sitting on top of Western New York.)
Ultimately, town hall meetings have debatable productive value. The public is clearly divided on many issues, and discussions about things such as health care, immigration, and national security are tense.
But Congress members are elected to represent everyone in their districts, even their critics. If GOP members refuse to publicly meet with constituents, it's not a good look for them. Many people have serious concerns about the direction of the Trump White House, and if they feel like no one's listening, that could lead to even more anxiety and anger.
That's already happening in Collins's district, where his critics argue that he's basically hiding from them.