Tuesday rallies in Geneva reflect what is happening elsewhere across the country in resisting Trump .
GENEVA — Congressman Tom Reed said in a Fox News interview he didn’t know why protesters gathered at his Ithaca office on Valentine’s Day for a 24-hour sit-in, despite numerous public statements, through traditional media outlets and on social media, about their intentions.
“I don’t know what they are protesting other than they are taking over the office,” Reed said in the Feb. 15 interview.
Fellow Republican Chris Collins, who refuses to meet with constituents at town hall meetings, recently told news outlet WGRZ he regards them as “useless.”
Reed and Collins each represent parts of Ontario County in districts that span a portion of the Finger Lakes region. Both are the targets of fired-up constituents demanding face time with GOP representatives — representatives they say are out of touch and ignoring their concerns about what is going on in Washington, and in their home districts.
Reed and Collins are not the only politicians in trouble with constituents who more and more are organizing to be heard.
With turmoil in Washington, from the showdown over President Donald Trump’s immigration ban to the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser over contacts with Russia, a nationwide movement has citizens banding together, pulling out all the stops to make an impact.
For the third Tuesday in a row this past week, protesters rallied outside Reed’s office in Geneva for what they call "Resist Trump Tuesdays." The rallies at the Exchange Street site, organized by several professors in the psychology department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, are drawing between 100 and 300 people expressing opposition to Trump and trying to find out where local representatives stand on the issues.
“Tom Reed hasn’t responded at all to our protests,” said organizer Jodi Dean. “We’ve sent hundreds of messages, left many with his office requesting a response, and he has remained silent. I guess that he is afraid of facing his constituents.
“And no wonder, he flip-flopped on the Muslim ban and is completely out of touch with the concerns of his district,” Dean added, referring to a statement Reed made in December calling Trump’s proposed ban “grossly inappropriate.”
Reed has held more than 200 town halls since he was elected to Congress in 2010, something he often mentions. But he has not held a town hall in Ontario County since before March 2016, according to the history of town halls on his website. Reed was not available for an interview to meet the deadline for this story, based on scheduling with Reed’s communications director Samantha Cotten. She said Reed will be holding a town hall in Ontario County in the spring.
Cotton provided the statement Reed made in response to the sit-in at his Ithaca office:
“We believe in the First Amendment and having open and accessible representation. Our offices are here to listen to the concerns of our constituents and look forward to having an open and respectful dialogue.”
In the Fox interview, Reed referred to protests such as sit-ins as “extreme tactics,” adding later in the interview: “I will let their behavior speak for itself. I will continue to do what I do.”
Dean said she believes these Tuesday rallies are accomplishing a lot.
“For starters, they tell Reed that he’s on notice,” Dean said. “But more importantly, they provide a galvanizing opportunity for people from all over the district to come together, network, and build solidarity. The organizing opportunity has been tremendous. People who have never been politically engaged are now hopping mad and ready to fight.
“What we are doing in Geneva is going on all over the country. And it’s working," Dean said. "The Democrats are having to scramble because they are at risk of getting left behind if they don’t do more to stand up to Trump and his cabinet of billionaire cronies. Republicans are clearly on the ropes — and will be revealed as hypocrites if they don’t start demanding that Trump release his taxes ... demand an ethics inquiry into the use of the White House as a money-making opportunity for all the different Trump businesses, demand an investigation of the connections to Russia, demand that the attack on health care, the environment, and working people stop. All over the country people are furious. This is just the beginning.”
Reed sits on the House Ways and Means Committee that on Tuesday rejected a Democratic push seeking President Trump's tax returns. Trump promised before he was elected that he would release his tax returns but has failed to do so.
Trump's tax returns, Democratic lawmakers argue, are important because they may shed light about Trump's potential conflicts of interest. They argue it is also important for security purposes, in light of national security adviser Michael Flynn resignation following reports that he misled White House officials about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.
Brien Ashdown, who also is an organizer of the Tuesday rallies in Geneva, said the events are good for bringing people together, to get them “out on the street” and to “make sure their voices are heard.”
“There are lots of great groups focusing on specific issues, and that is very important,” Ashdown said. “But these rallies are to get everyone together, for everyone to bring their concerns to one place, and to be heard.”
Ashdown added that the first rally was spontaneous. It came from him and a few colleagues and friends texting each other one Sunday morning about what was happening in the country.
“We decided we had to do something. So we organized a rally. It quickly became a weekly rally. And other groups have joined us, which makes it all better,” Ashdown said.
Speaking about the movement happening across the country, “the national protests are telling,” he said. “We aren't paid protestors. We aren't being sent by any D.C. organization. We're concerned citizens who want to be seen and heard.
“I think they'll unite people with common cause. I think they'll get people talking and planning," Ashdown said. "And I think they'll force our representatives to pay more attention to us rather than corporate interests.”
‘Where's Chris Collins?’
Two electronic billboards in the western part of Collins’ district — one in Hamburg, the other near the I-90/I-190 intersection — ask: "Where's Chris Collins? WNY would like a word ... Host a town hall meeting, Mr. Collins."
The Buffalo News reported the billboards are the brainchild of Michelle Schoeneman, co-founder of the Facebook group Citizens Against Collins. Schoeneman started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for one billboard and raised $3,330 in four days, enough for two.
Collins, who served on the Trump transition team's executive committee, frequently appears in the national media. His Valentine’s Day comment got a lot of play. After CNN's Chris Cuomo questioned why Republican lawmakers have fallen silent in the aftermath of retired Gen. Flynn's resignation as national security adviser on Monday night, Collins replied: "Well, it's Valentine's Day and I guess they're having breakfast with their wives."
Michael McAdams, Collins' spokesman, was asked on Tuesday for a phone interview with the congressman about why Collins won’t hold town halls. McAdams, who didn’t want to be quoted, said Collins has been in Washington five days a week, home only on weekends in the new Congress, because of all the votes.
Protests in 2009, during the President Barack Obama administration, focused on health care but reflected broader concerns over an increasingly divisive new president and Democrats' monopoly control over Washington. The protests led to the rise of the Tea Party movement, which brought conservative views and issues to the forefront.
Now, too, constituent complaints at town hall meetings appear to reflect more general fears about the Trump administration and the implications of one-party GOP rule in the nation's capital.
In a Salt Lake City suburb on a recent night, GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz faced irate constituents chanting "Do your job!" as they pressed the House Oversight Committee chairman to investigate Trump. Chaffetz struggled to be heard as he faced a litany of sharp questions and screams from a crowd of people who grilled him on everything from Obamacare to Chaffetz's desire to overturn the designation of a new national monument in southern Utah.
"Come on, we're better than this," Chaffetz said over the hubbub at one point, practically pleading with the deafening crowd to let him speak.
In Tennessee, GOP Rep. Diane Black faced questions from impassioned and well-informed constituents defending the Affordable Care Act, including one man who told her that he and others with health conditions might die without insurance.
"And you want to take away this coverage, and have nothing to replace it with," the man said. Black argued that the Affordable Care Act has been ineffective because although 20 million people gained coverage under the law, millions more have chosen to pay a fine and remain uninsured.
And in southern Wisconsin, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner faced a voter who asked him: "Who's going to be the check and balance on Donald Trump?"
Like others interviewed at town halls around the country, the woman asking the question, Barbara Kresse, said she has not been politically active, another similarity to 2009 when the advent of the Obama administration seemed to cause enough anxiety to awaken groups of voters who also had never previously gotten politically involved.
Modeling itself after the Tea Party groups that that sprang up to oppose Obama and the Democrats, the nonprofit group Indivisible presents a how-to guide to resisting the Trump agenda. It is written by former Democratic congressional staffers who served during the early years of the Obama administration.
In a Jan. 2 opinion piece for New York Times, “Indivisible” co-authors Ezra Levin, Leah Greenberg and Angel Padilla write, “The Tea Party’s ideas were wrong, and their often racist rhetoric and physical threats were unacceptable. But they understood how to wield political power and made two critical strategic decisions. First, they organized locally, focusing on their own members of Congress. Second, they played defense, sticking together to aggressively resist anything with President Obama’s support. With this playbook, they rattled our elected officials, targeting Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Politics is the art of the possible, and the Tea Party changed what was possible," the piece continues."They waged a relentless campaign to force Republicans away from compromise and tank Democratic legislative priorities like immigration reform and campaign finance transparency. Their members ensured that legislation that did pass, like the Affordable Care Act, was unpopular from the start. They hijacked the national narrative and created the impression of broad discontent with President Obama.
“And they organized for the 2010 election, targeting Republicans in the primaries and Democrats in the general election. After the November 2010 elections, the Democratic majority in the House and supermajority in the Senate were gone.”
Going the distance
Rose Mary Hooper has long been outspoken in local politics in her hometown of Naples.
A resident of the village of Naples, in Reed’s congressional district, Hooper said she is now fully committed to what she believes to be the most pressing issue: Resisting Trump. Hooper has attended a number of rallies in the past few months, including the Tuesday rallies in Geneva. She and a group from Ontario County planned to attend Reed’s Saturday, Feb. 18, town hall in Allen, Allegany County — 50 miles from the village of Naples.
Hooper, an antiques dealer, won’t sit by and wait for Reed to come to Naples, though he should, she said. She and others are following the “Indivisible” playbook. Part of that is going the distance — “We are traveling lots of miles,” to confront local congressional members, Hooper said.
“They want to get reelected,” Hooper said. “So far, they are just doing their handler’s bidding.”
In the Fox News interview, Reed said about his reaction to protests after the election, “there was this anger on the left that their agenda was threatened.” Reed said he wants to have discussions with constituents and to listen to what they have to say.
“A lot of what they want is a 180-degree turn in our policy shift,” Reed said. He called what he is seeing now in protests “just a higher level” of what he has seen before.
“After about an hour of getting yelled at, people come up and say, ‘I think I can work with you,’” Reed said.
— Includes reporting by The Associated Press