It wasn’t even 6:00 a.m. and the temperature was a bit under 15 degrees Fahrenheit, with the wind making it even worse. Hundreds of Ithaca residents stood outside in the cold, waiting to get a spot in what was the only town hall Tom Reed, U.S. Representative for New York’s 23rd congressional district, had held in Ithaca for a long time.
Tickets were given on a first-come, first-served basis, and some people were not able to get them in time. At around 7:15, those who had come early enough to get tickets were packed into a tiny gym at Southside Community Center, the official site of the town hall. Many people held signs covering topics from healthcare to immigration. Signs with agree on one side and disagree on the other were handed out as a way for people to express their opinions while still letting the Congressman speak (booing was generally saved until the end of Reed’s statements). Many began to chant, “This is what democracy looks like”: people were proud to be standing up for the causes most important to them. Eventually, Reed arrived.
The town hall began with Southside’s Dr. Nia Nunn giving an introduction, going over Southside’s history as well as its current role as part of the Ithaca community. She then announced a change to the structure of the event, to the crowd’s disappointment. Originally, Nunn was going to ask questions selected from those submitted by email, but instead, Reed insisted on having his staff review the submitted questions themselves and having a member of his staff ask him paraphrased versions. While some members of the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions themselves, those questions elicited shorter responses from Reed. The overall format of the town hall seemed to restrict the dialogue between the speaker and the community. However, Reed had already shown that he did not need Ithaca’s support to be elected in New York’s 23rd congressional district, so it was unclear how much that actually mattered to him.
The first issue discussed, which took up most of the time, was healthcare. Reed established that he was dead-set on repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which immediately put him at odds with the vast majority of the room. Questions came in about what the future would be like for those dependent on the ACA, if the GOP’s plan would ensure equal payment between women and men, and what the future of Planned Parenthood would be. Reed was unable to give specifics for any of these questions, and he often tried to dodge the exact questions being asked. Eventually, the town hall moved to the other topic that was discussed at the meeting, the environment, where Reed further demonstrated how little he had in common with the people of Ithaca.
The transition into the discussion about the environment included Reed’s attempt to explain his vague policy regarding the EPA. He stated that he supported its existence but wanted to reduce its authority, although he did not elaborate further other than saying that some of its regulations were going too far. Reed made the claim that he had a record of supporting renewable energy and became known as one of the “wind and solar Republicans,” prompting most of the crowd to laugh. The one environmental issue in which Reed was explicit about his policy was his support for the repeal of the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, or as some know it, “the GOP’s legalization of dumping coal into rivers.” Reed said that he supported its repeal as part of his support for all fuel sources, including coal and other fossil fuels. Of the statements made by Reed regarding the environment, they distanced him from his Ithaca constituency even more so than his policies regarding healthcare.
While the event ultimately did not appear to change Reed’s point of view, it was a valuable opportunity for those frustrated with their representation in the House to have their voices heard. Members of the Ithaca community gathered for an event to stand up for and defend what mattered most to them. Although Congressman Reed did not add much to the event, the people there certainly reminded him that, with every vote he casts, there are people who will hold him accountable for his decisions. The meaningfulness of this town hall was not characterized by anything Reed said, but by the words people were chanting earlier that morning: “This is what democracy looks like.”