Hundreds turned out for a town hall meeting organized by a liberal activist group last week. The overflow crowd at George Washington School on Wall Street in Uptown Kingston — estimated by organizers Citizen Action at about 1,200 — showed up despite the fact that the guest of honor, Congressman John Faso, declined his invitation to appear.
The event came as Republican lawmakers across the country are facing rowdy crowds at town hall events in scenes reminiscent of the rise of the Tea Party in opposition to 2009’s Affordable Care Act.
For his part, Faso has called the town hall forums before partisan crowds “not productive.” Instead, he’s focused his efforts on small group meetings, including one with a delegation from Citizen Action in which he addressed concerns about the fate of the ACA. Jayne said that Faso delivered “typical lines” in his discussion with the delegation and in remarks to a larger crowd gathered outside his Kingston office on Broadway.
Faso of Kinderhook in Columbia County, a veteran Albany politician, ran for his first term in Congress as a pragmatic centrist with a firm grasp of policy. He’s advocated a “reform and repair” approach to the ACA that would keep in place popular of the law, like allowing children to remain on parents health plans up to age 26 and expanded Medicaid coverage.
“He says he wants to fix what’s broken and keep what works,” said Jayne who attended the sit-down with Faso. “But he wouldn’t commit to not repealing [the ACA] which would push the whole system into chaos.”
In the packed auditorium, Kate Breslin of the Schuyler Center for Policy and Analysis told the crowd that popular Republican “fixes” for the ACA, like government-subsidized “high-risk pools” for patients who insurers would otherwise not cover and tax-free health savings accounts to pay medical expenses, had serious flaws that would likely reverse the progress under Obamacare which, she said, had slashed New York’s rate of uninsured residents from 10 percent to five percent over the past seven years. The risk pools, she said, had been tried in 35 states and failed, because healthcare costs outpaced subsidies. The health savings accounts, she said would only benefit those who had enough income to contribute to them.
Another popular Republican prescription — turning Medicaid from an open-ended entitlement into a limited block grant to individual states — would inevitably lead to cuts. Many of the “reform” plans under consideration, Breslin said, would end up shifting billions in healthcare costs from the federal government to New York State taxpayers.
“Repealing the Affordable Care Act would undo all of these good things,” said Breslin. “I would agree that the Affordable Care Act is not perfect … but we should improve it, not eliminate it.”
Immigration expert Emma Kreyche of Kingston’s Worker Justice Center detailed the contents of leaked memos from the Department of Homeland Security laying the groundwork for stepped-up deportation of undocumented immigrants, including those who arrived as children, who were previously considered a low priority for enforcement agencies. Kreyche said that the plans also included a massive expansion of detention facilities for suspected illegal immigrants, the hiring of thousands more immigration enforcement agents and expanded use of an expedited removal process that allows for speedy deportation with minimal due process.
Kreyche encouraged attendees to take an activist approach, focused on state and local level initiatives, like a push for a statewide “sanctuary” policy of non-cooperation with immigration authorities and legislation that would allow undocumented residents to obtain New York driver’s licenses and financial aid at state universities.
“We need to push for state-level policies that are pro-immigrant,” said Kreyche. “We’re not going to get a lot done at the federal level. We’re fighting back, not making progress.”
Outside, those who couldn’t squeeze in to the auditorium held a rally on the school’s steps. A bullhorn, the key instrument of every political rally, was being expertly played by several seasoned practitioners of the art. Steve Spicer, a member of Black Lives Matter who laughingly denied any familial connection to a certain other “Spicer,” led several hundred people on the school’s steps in fist-pumping sing-alongs of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Chants of “Faso, Faso, why you waitin’, Russia needs investigating!” and “Faso, Faso, have you heard, we want to see his tax returns!” kept the crowd energized.
Near the end of the event, people stood on the school’s steps, holding signs and posters accusing Trump of various outrages — tax evader, misogynist, among others. Tricia Nazzocca of Rosendale glided by one of the poster bearers, carrying an American flag. “The only sign I need,” she said with a smile.
While it was billed as an educational forum, the partisan tenor of the event was evident throughout. After hearing speakers, attendees were asked to fill out cards addressed to Faso laying out their concerns. Citizen Action organizers led participants in chants of “Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcomed here” and speaker discussed “action items” like calling elected officials. Jayne said that the event demonstrated the level of discontent or at least unease with the new administration and the new wave of progressive activism aimed at turning the tide.
“It’s not just this group of crazy liberals, as the media likes to portray us,” said Jayne. “People are really concerned about their future and the future of their community.”
With additional reporting by Jeremiah Horrigan and Dan Barton