Friday, September 1, 2017

We Agree to Disagree: Move Forward's Town Hall with Congressman John Faso

by Glenn Geher, a founding member of Move Forward New York

As indicated in our formal press release (thanks to Move Forward member Melissa Servant for her intensive and efficient work on this),  Move Forward New York hosted an impassioned town hall event with Congressman John Faso of New York's 19th congressional district last night in Esopus. 

This post is designed to elaborate on and complement our press release - providing some highlights of the event from this author's perspective. 

The Setting
The setup of the event was met with much anxiety from various parties. Many progressive activists questioned whether this event was an appropriate event for several reasons. Folks questioned if the venue (the Esopus Town Hall) was large or accessible enough. People questioned whether the process of allocating seats was sufficiently fair and open. In short, people questioned whether this event was a good idea. 

So a protest of our congressman was organized and held right on the grounds of the Town Hall. This counter-event was, by all accounts, well-organized and was done in a civil manner. And without question, peaceable assembly to fairly criticize our government is one of the most basic rights that is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Further, as was made clear by the nature of the questions inside the Town Hall, constituents in the 19th district have a broad array of concerns regarding the Congressman's record - so a protest only made sense in this context. 

From the perspective of the members of Move Forward New York, we are, of course, always pleased to see citizens participating in the democratic process via peaceable assembly and similar means. I commend the protesters for their dedication and effort to help hold our elected official accountable.

Highlights of the Town Hall

Going into the event, I will admit that there was a splash of anxiety. Was this event really going to be a "sham" town hall like so many of the protesters were saying? Was there going to be some attempt to have the "tough" questions taken out of the mix? Was this event going to be a free advertisement for the Congressman's platform?

As things played out, I think that everyone in the room would agree that this was a legitimate town hall and, without question, lots of tough questions were asked and there were consistent opportunities for the constituents of the 19th to express their concerns - and to follow up when necessary to underscore these concerns in their communication with their congressman.

Over 100 participants wrote questions on index cards and these cards were sorted by MFNY members Miryam Antunez de Mayolo and Melissa Servant into categories (health care, immigration, etc.). The two moderators, Gerald Benjamin and Debra Clinton, then selected the questions to be asked. And about 20 people were chosen via this process to come up and ask their questions.

My role was to hold the microphone for each person asking a question, so I was right in the thick of it. And this said, I can say that perhaps the most surprising element of the evening for me was this: Not a single person who came up asking a question came out as supportive of Mr. Faso or his voting record. Check the video if you don't believe me - it was amazing to me! We set this event up so that his office allocated about 1/3 of the seats - yet for some reason, the folks who came to speak to their congressman were, seemingly without exception, members of the resistance.

While we worked to create a civil context for the event - which I believe we generally were successful at doing - I will say that there were many moments of clear disagreement between the audience members (who were disproportionately aligned with the resistance) and the congressman. People booed when he brought up the importance of the free market as critical in shaping issues associated with climate change. People cheered when he was asked to denounce his connections with the Mercer millionaires, and so forth.

Some of the highlights, for me, included the following:

* Kelleigh McKenzie pushed the congressman on the great economic divide in our nation and asked how his plans to provide tax breaks for big business was going to possibly help address this foundational issue in our society.
* Tom Kruglinski pushed the congressman on his voting record, asking how he reconciles being aligned nearly 90% with Donald Trump as a representative in a mixed district.
* Tim Hunter raised, in a highly personal plea, Faso's decisions related to healthcare, which could strip millions of Americans of the basic right to healthcare.
* Leslie Berliant raised the "dark money" issue - asking Faso to refuse to accept donations in the future from ethically questionable sources (see below).
* Marc Rider asked the congressman if he agreed that President Trump is unfit for the presidency of the United States. The congressman, as far as I could tell, dodged this question - a point that concerned many in the audience.

While the event had many other highlights, this exchange between Leslie Berliant of Cooperstown and the Congressman certainly was a real stand-out. Herein, Leslie asked the Congressman if he would publicly denounce the accepting of money from entities and individuals such as the Mercers who fund such hateful and (to my mind) Anti-American initiatives such as Breitbart. In his response, as you will see here, the Congressman "agrees to disagree."

Appreciation to the Congressman and His Staff

As I indicated in my introductory comments, as Americans, we expect everyone to agree with our ideas to our own peril. This is the United States and diversity of ideas is a foundational feature of how we run as Americans.

While I personally am terrified of the fact that Donald Trump is the president, am adamantly in support of campaign finance reform, and fully support healthcare systems that conceptualize healthcare to be a human right, I also appreciate and respect diversity of ideas and I believe that the best learning takes place when opposing viewpoints confront one another in a fair and civil context. Yesterday's event was such an environment.

I give credit to Congressman Faso for participating in this event. He was asked heated questions non-stop and faced a good bit of negativity. He had to pass a long string of protesters before even walking in the door. And as I indicated prior, question after question after question was pointed, impassioned, and concerned when it came to his voting record. It is definitely his job as an elected official to engage in such a process - but it also should be noted that this could not have been easy. So I thank him and appreciate his efforts.

I also thank the congressman's district director, Ryan McAlister, for his work in collaboratively organizing the event. This event was a big deal for Move Forward New York - and I have a feeling that it was a big deal for Faso's office as well. Ryan oversaw things on their end and I want to give him credit for his practical, friendly, and effective approach in this collaboration. Great guy to work with.

And, of course, a lesson here is that regardless of political differences, people are still people - and we need to work together - especially during this difficult time in our history.

Bottom Line

Since the formation of Move Forward New York in November of 2016, one of our goals has been to set up a public forum, or town hall, with our congressman - to help make sure that we have an opportunity to express the many concerns that we have during a time that we consider one of national emergency. After much build-up, we achieved that goal yesterday. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't easy. And the build-up to it was, regrettably, a bit more stressful than I wish were the case.

But no one said this was going to be easy. There is no free lunch - and if you want to make something happen, it's going to take hard work. And all of these truths pertain to participation in government.

In a democracy such as ours, participating actively in government is essential. During this uniquely difficult time in our history, complacency is not an option. I'm proud of the folks in Move Forward New York who helped make yesterday's event happen. I'm proud of our many brave brothers and sisters who looked our congressman in the eyes and asked him, fully in public, the hard questions. And I'm glad that a successful peaceable assembly comprised of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights took place outside of the venue.

Here is to the future. Here is to moving forward.

Move Forward Members (l-r) Joel Alfieri, Marlene Alfieri, Glenn Geher, Fabio Danisi, Debra Clinton, Jason Clinton, Patty Wilson, Melissa Servant

If ever there was a time to become politically active and rise up, that time is now. Here is to the uprising.

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Note that the views expressed herein are expressly the views of the author and are not necessarily the views of Move Forward New York as a collective entity.