Claire Forest, who runs the Forest Family Farm near Ithaca’s South Hill, braved the cold to attend a town hall for Rep. Tom Reed (R–N.Y.) early Saturday morning and to protest Reed’s support of hydraulic fracturing because of the effects it would have on her farmland.
“I was supposed to prune my fruit trees today,” she said. “But instead, I’m here.”
Forest’s voice was one of many that rang out at the Southside Community Center, where Reed held the first of four scheduled town halls Saturday. Despite stinging winds and bone-numbing cold, hundreds of constituents and protesters showed up before 6 a.m. to get tickets and waited until doors the to Southside gymnasium opened at 7.
Reed was met with a crowd of constituents both angry and appreciative inside, including those who insisted on quieting the attendees and letting the congressman speak. As the town hall continued, the crowd grew substantially, topping 500 by the meeting’s conclusion and drowning out his voice with loud boos and chants of “Do your job!”
When Reed entered the gymnasium, he addressed the crowd’s concerns that he might not show up.
“I’ve been here in Ithaca before, I will be in Ithaca again, and I’m here today because I care,” he said. “I care.”
“Do you?” a constituent shouted back.
The remainder of the town hall followed this same pattern; attendees, most of whom were progressive, were given two signs — a green “Agree” sign and a red “Disagree” placard.
At various points, such as when Reed voiced his opposition to single-payer healthcare, or an “all of the above” energy policy, the crowd turned into a sea of red. When audience members voiced support for coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, that sea of red turned green.
The audience stretched their arms up holding signs that read, “Drain the Swamp, Uproot the Reeds,” “Trump Care = Wealth Care,” “Tom Greed: Ruining Our Medicare and Raising Our Property Taxes” and “Who Would Jesus Deport.”
Cornell Prof. Chris Schaffer, biomedical engineering, confronted Reed directly, calling President Donald Trump’s new ban “idiotic” and voicing concern over its effect on one of his Iranian students’ ability to travel.
Most of the discussion in the town hall, however, was focused on healthcare policy, and Reed’s support of the Republican Party’s “repeal and replace” plan, which focuses more on subsidizing costs of insurance through tax credits based on age and income brackets, rather than based on the cost of insurance in a given area, as done under the Affordable Care Act.
For Kevin Kowalewski ’17, president of Cornell Democrats, much of the crowd’s exasperation was directed toward the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, which is being rushed through the House of Representatives.
“What they’re trying to do with the Affordable Care Act is simply not acceptable,” he told The Sun. “This massive turnout is emblematic as to how much people actually care about the issue.”
David Halpert, a pediatric neurologist at Cayuga Medical Center, entered the gym toting a sign made by his wife Teresa — “How many lies are too many lies?” — and expressed concern over access to care in rural counties like Tompkins.
From Halpert’s initial question, Reed was jeered and hissed at by the audience as he announced the House’s health care bill. The reforms that will replace the Affordable Care Act will be phased in over the next 12 to 24 months, Reed said, adding refundable tax credits, changes to health savings accounts and removal of tax increases.
Reed said he will also prioritize Medicaid expansion for a transition period, expanding state level discretion on Medicaid programs with a $100 million investment and a switch to per capita-based Medicaid block grants aimed to help patients in low-volume hospitals in rural areas.
His words prompted shouts of disagreement, but Reed retained his unwavering stance.
“Clearly, the Affordable Care Act is not working and we need to move forward,” he said.
Jim Skaley, of Dryden, expressed concern over the stability of his medicare and the cost of his private insurance premiums.
“If the Congressional Budget Office comes out and says that millions of people are going to lose insurance, I’d like to see [Reed] vote no,” he said.
One woman confronted Reed over his desire to defund Planned Parenthood, accusing him of trying to defund the organization based on his personal beliefs, “not based on the beliefs of everybody in [his] constituency.”
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125) joined the dissatisfied crowd, pointing out that New York would lose $3.7 billion every year in health care funding under the new proposal, in addition to a $3 million cut from hospitals and more than $1 million from Tompkins County, where she said 8,000 people depend on Obamacare.
“Insurance exchanges are going to collapse,” she said. “Very quickly, people are going to lose their health insurance.”
Over chants of “represent us!” Reed responded, “I am honored to represent 717,000 people, and each one of those voices is important to me,” before handing the microphone to a more supportive constituent, Thomas Taylor, of Elmira, the only person in the gymnasium wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
While Trump supporters were sparse at the meeting, Taylor was not afraid to make his stance known.
“President [Barack] Obama once said that elections have consequences,” Taylor reminded the audience, which repeatedly interrupted him. “Last November, we had an election. The positions of both candidates were very clear.”
“Now, Congressman,” Taylor said, “who are you going to represent? The people who elected you, or the people who lost?”
“Your voice does have an impact on me,” Reed said, met by a scornful laughter, which continued as he discussed his disapproval for a single payer system and his commitment to cutting back environmental regulations in support of the fossil fuel industry.
After Reed took questions from members of the public outside, Nia Nunn, president of the Southside Community Center Board, thanked Reed for attending, and invited him back, “so we can talk about that Muslim ban,” drawing laughs from the crowd.
Asked of Reed’s performance at the town hall meeting, Ivy Greene ’17, vice president of Cornell Democrats, said the congressman’s answers were purposefully unclear.
“We put in the effort to come here and we deserve clear, direct answers to our questions,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”
To Greene, the frustrated chants and interruptions were symptomatic of the lack of transparency and verity in political discourse.
“We are not getting clear answers and true facts from our politicians,” she said.
Greene said that, despite Reed’s stated desire to have a dialogue with constituents, he seemed to purposely avoid a venue that would have accommodated more people. Some Ithacans wanted Reed to host the town hall at the State Theatre, which offered a vastly reduced price to the congressman.
As Reed made his way down Plain Street after the meeting’s end, most of the crowd dispersed to flee the bitter cold.
The few that followed him pressed him on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, possible cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts and his support for the travel ban.
Asked repeatedly by members of the crowd when he would be returning to Ithaca, Reed’s response was always the same:
“I’ll be back!”