KINGSTON—Around 6:45 p.m. on an unusually warm evening in February, a couple-hundred constituents from New York’s 19th Congressional District are gathered at the stone entrance of a Kingston elementary school. Some are dressed in t-shirts and jeans. Most are holding signs bearing the name of their newly elected congressman.
As the sun begins to set on the city, street lamps flick on and dimly light Washington Avenue. By now the rally has poured into the street, and Kingston police are guiding traffic around the constituents. Standing next to a parked minivan, Vicki Bradford and her husband are peering over the crowd. She is holding a sign at chest height. “Repeal, replace Faso,” she reads.
By mid-February, the House and Senate had entered a recess, an opening for members of Congress to return to their districts and connect with constituents. In states such as New York, Kentucky, Iowa, Virginia and California, constituents were receiving their Republican lawmakers with a similar, angry response to how Representative John Faso was being received by the 19th district.
At the time, the grassroots movements that took hold in these states had loosely coalesced around one message: vote down the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. In the 19th district, Faso had only met with constituents in one-on-ones or in small groups. In all cases, the media was denied access to the meetings.
In the weeks prior to that February evening, organizers moved the town hall to the auditorium at George Washington Elementary School to accommodate the growing demand for seats. The event began on Facebook, where organizers from the Hudson Valley chapter of Citizen Action of New York say they distributed 400 tickets. Another one hundred or so are on a waiting list.
By 7 p.m. a speaker inside the auditorium rises to the podium to introduce the evening’s agenda. It is standing room only in the auditorium, and those without seats are leaning against walls or sitting in the aisles of the aging theater. Although seats in the press box have long been forfeited to ticket holders, several cameras are trained on the stage and an unoccupied chair.
Organizers hosted the event in response to what they saw as inaction by their representative. Already a full month into his term, Faso had yet to hold an open, public town hall to field questions and concerns. Constituents wanted to know, where was Faso?
I meet Cathy Joiner on the second floor of the Village Hall in New Paltz. Roughly a month had passed since Faso was first scheduled to appear in the Town Hall and still he didn’t show. Now in the thick of winter, the sidewalks are bedded with snow and the wind chill brings the temperature near freezing. By early afternoon, canvassers from the town shuffle into the hall bundled in hats and scarves.
Joiner moves with the aid of a cane or motorized scooter. “I grew up outside of a chemical dump,” she explains. “That’s why I walk funny.” Joiner grew up in a town adjacent to Faso’s seat in Kinderhook, and she remembers finding his name on the ballot for the 19th district. “I said, I’m going to vote for him,” she sighs. “I was really wrong. He voted against our clean water.”
According to FiveThirtyEight, Faso has voted in line with President Trump’s position 89.3 percent of the time. His alignment with the White House is one factor that spurred political action in the 19th district. Back in February, protestors railed against Faso, who said he would cast his vote in favor of the Trump administration’s plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
Local organizers from Indivisible NY, Women’s March NY and Citizen Action begin a brief training session at around 11 a.m. on canvassing. It is unclear when and where the political movement in the 19th district began. Some groups pre-date the 2016 presidential election, others credit the election in their mission statements.
In the days following the presidential election, former White House staffers penned Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. According to the Indivisible website, there are almost 6,000 Indivisible groups in the United States, or roughly two groups per district. In New York, there are groups in Kingston, Saugerties, Ulster County, Dutchess County and Columbia County.
“I was an organizer of Indivisible Ulster with my partner,” Cathy Adin says. “We set up a Facebook page after we read the Indivisible Guide and decided to set up a local group.” Adin says she and her partner expected no more than 10 people to join. “We’ve had 360-some sign up as of today.”
Adin is a retired high school librarian from the region. Like many of the canvassers I spoke with that day, she is unsatisfied with Faso’s performance thus far. “He’s not been willing to meet with a town hall group with general, average citizens,” she says. “He’s been working one-on-one and small groups. But that’s not reflective of what we need.”
I join a small group of canvassers led by Joiner. The volunteers are armed with manila folders of petitions and signup sheets, and spread out across 30 turfs, or groups of streets within walking distance of the village hall. We head south, nearing the college’s campus.
The afternoon begins with a stutter. On an early Sunday afternoon, residents are either not home or do not answer their doors. To double our efforts, we split into two groups. Before long, we arrive to the residence of Misha Harnick. A canvasser hands Harnick a petition. “We have to fight no matter how,” Harnick laughs.
I ask Harnick if she has been politically active before, or if this is her first time. “I have signed so may online petitions, sent so many letters, postcards, made phone calls like hundreds of thousands of people,” she responds. “Where did it get us?”
To say that Faso has not held a town hall is not accurate. Back in February, the emcee at Faso Town Hall delivered that night’s message with a caveat: constituents want an open, public town hall. At that time Faso had met with constituents in small groups, but never in a large setting. The 19th district wanted Faso out in the open, media and all.
On March 13, Faso held a teletown hall, an hour-long live event streamed on the web. In the days leading up to the stream, Faso’s office accepted questions from constituents. A press release by the congressman’s office stated the stream reached “20,000 residents in the 19th district and heard from them on various topics of concern, from property tax to healthcare to our environment.” The press release went on to say that all 11 counties in the district were represented.
On April 12, 2017 Faso appeared in a televised town hall conversation. The conversation was moderated by Matt Ryan and Casey Sheiler of the Times Union newspaper in Albany. In the studio were “just under 100 people,” Ryan said. The event was live streamed and broadcast from the WMHT studio in New York’s capital region, WSKG TV and radio. Audiences at home were invited to tweet questions into the town hall via the hashtag, #FasoTownHall.
“I was not enthused about some of the town halls which I have seen held around the country,” Faso said to Ryan, “which were really just sign waving, shouting situations.” He added, “I didn’t think that was the most productive thing.”
It is unclear if the freshman congressman will meet his constituents in an open, public town hall setting. Currently, there is a form on Faso’s website that invites the 19th district to submit questions to be answered in a Facebook Live Town Hall.
The congressman’s office did not respond to a request for comment.