As many national lawmakers in recent weeks returned home and dealt with hostile crowds, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, visited Schenectady on Monday night and was met with an audience that embraced him.
In a wide-ranging town hall forum, Tonko fielded questions and spoke to constituents for about two hours. Many in attendance expressed appreciation for Tonko’s work, but felt uneasy about the direction of the country under President Donald Trump.
“I think this is an important juncture. You have an administration that’s just weeks old. You have a new session,” he told reporters prior to the event. “I think because of those factors, it’s important for us to get our bearings and understand where people may be.”
Tonko represents New York’s 20th Congressional District, which includes all of Albany and Schenectady counties, and parts of Montgomery, Rensselaer and Saratoga counties.
Attendees filled a 400-seat auditorium to capacity at Schenectady County Community College about a half-hour before the town hall started. A few hundred more watched from nearby overflow rooms, and at least a couple hundred people at a time watched a live-stream of the event on the congressman’s Facebook page.
Dozens of members of Congress have held similar forums in recent weeks, some specifically focused on the Affordable Care Act. In several instances, Republican lawmakers faced unfriendly crowds, as citizens chanted, waved signs and protested.
Monday’s forum in Schenectady was far more cordial. The crowd applauded during or after nearly every answer, and many started their question by thanking Tonko for his work. One woman called herself Tonko’s number one fan. Another man said he was proud to call Tonko his congressman.
Questions covered a gamut of topics, including healthcare, the environment, the military, federal corruption, a rise in anti-Semitism and the future of the Democratic Party. Many expressed concerns about how Trump’s administration might affect each particular issue.
In response to Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, Tonko said there should be no repeal unless a replacement has been approved by both houses of Congress.
Tonko received a large applause after responding to one woman’s question about what could be done to address recent instances of anti-Semitism, both nationally and locally.
“True leaders bring us together. True leaders respect the diversity that is us. That is America,” Tonko said, adding that he was troubled by President Trump directing a Jewish reporter to sit down during a press conference last week.
One woman asked him to “help your constituents by helping the earth,” and Tonko responded by vowing to fight for environmental protections that also create jobs.
Healthcare, a partial refugee ban that has since been blocked by federal courts, infrastructure and the heroin epidemic are among the topics Tonko said he hears about most from constituents, but noted that residents are concerned those issues go unaddressed.
“And what they hear is whose crowd was larger at an event, or who scored what votes in the popular or electoral college columns and this is like past history,” he said before the town hall. “People want to move on. They want a substantive discussion.”
Monday night’s forum provided an opportunity for that discussion, which hundreds were eager to take advantage of.
“People need to take control of their future and their government,” said Pete Looker, a Glenville resident. “We need to do what’s right for the next generation.”
Deb DiGrado, from Guilderland, made a sign that showed the faces of Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and other leaders in the Trump administration taped onto the bodies of rats. She wrote “Watch them like a hawk. United Sewer of America.”
She said she wanted to hear Tonko stand up to Trump’s agenda, and was seeking some input on how constituents could best remain politically active.
Mary Costellop, a Niskayuna resident, held a small poster that read “Thank you Congressman Tonko Stay strong.” She said she was pleased with Monday night’s event, and hoped Tonko might host more in the future.
“I think the benefit here is to facilitate a community dialogue where people are discussing a common topic, but may not have common approaches to that topic,” Tonko said. “I think community dialogue is a critical aspect of our democracy."