HUDSON FALLS — A voter managed to pop a few words off to U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik before he was cut off by someone who told him he was part of a “hate group.”
“We only hate you guys driving by and flipping us off,” the man responded.
Half the room jeered while the other cheered.
So it went at Stefanik’s "Coffee with Your Congresswoman" event in Hudson Falls on Friday, the fourth and final town hall event in two days.
Tensions ran high between progressives and members of a conservative activist group who formed a veritable wall between Stefanik and the audience by occupying much of the first three rows.
Tension between Trump supporters and detractors has been building at the local and national levels when the two sides are gathered together.
Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is opposed to the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry of President Trump. The Democrats allege that Trump held up American aid to pressure Ukraine's new leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son over the son’s business dealings. Biden is running for president.
Stefanik told the gathering that she doesn’t support impeachment and called for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call a formal impeachment vote.
“Every member of the American public deserves to know where their member of Congress stands,” Stefanik said.
The White House is not cooperating in the impeachment inquiry, calling it a political witch hunt. The Trump administration is instructing federal government officials not to testify in the inquiry.
Stefanik said once the rules are set, White House should compel witnesses to testify. But right now, Republicans are being shut out of the process, she said, and “it’s just [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff running rampant.”
“You have six committees pursuing witness conversations without any work with the Republicans,” Stefanik said.
EYE ON UKRAINE
The latest controversy ignited when a whistleblower revealed Trump temporary froze $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine and asked his counterpart to investigation Biden’s son. Trump has denied that the aid was tied to his request for a "favor" from the Ukraine government.
Stefanik visited the nation last year as part of a congressional delegation to discuss strategy and emerging technologies to combat Russian cyber warfare operations.
She acknowledged “significant corruption” in Ukrainian government, citing a bank failure that collapsed shortly before her trip.
“When it comes to foreign aid, I think we should be tough on corruption for other countries,” she said. “I just came back from Afghanistan. Corruption is a major issue there and foreign aid is a tool to help these foreign nations crack down on internal corruption."
The Washington Post reported this week Trump also allegedly pushed out the former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who testified to Congress on Friday.
Stefanik acknowledged Yovanovitch was highly respected and considered an expert on Russian aggression and issues.
But, she told reporters before the event: “The president is allowed to hire and fire his ambassadors at will.”
The lawmaker said she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to review Yovanovitch's deposition.
“I look forward to reviewing that at length, and again, this is something that should be released to the American public,” Stefanik said.
Locally, activist groups have been squaring off for months in Glens Falls, leading authorities to consider adopting rules governing demonstrations.
A pro-Trump activist, Mike Kibling, recently pointed a bright-orange toy gun at a Post-Star reporter.
Stefanik disavowed those actions.
“I condemn any violence or any threat of violence or physical threat — rhetorical threat of violence — against any constituent or against any journalist,” Stefanik said.
Multiple local media outlets also reported this week that one of the lawmaker’s senior staff members allegedly asked a pro-Trump group that Kibling is involved in, the North Country Deplorables, to “show up early and secure all the seating inside the fire station.”
Kibling posted to Facebook an account of his alleged discussion with the staff member about filling the fire station with pro-Trump residents.
A group of several dozen people did mill around the building for at least a half-hour on Friday before the doors were opened.
Pressed by a voter at the end of the two-hour meeting to confirm that account, Stefanik said her office reaches out to constituents regularly.
“We make hundreds and hundreds of calls to groups across this district,” she said. "We want to have as many people as possible."
After several moments of back-and-forth cross talk, Kibling stood up and said he fabricated the post.
“I made up a post to generate people to come here,” Kibling said.
"You told a lie!" a woman yelled.
“I told a lie," Kibling said. "Who am I? I’m just a dude.”
At one point, constituents repeatedly asked Stefanik to discuss the source of her campaign donations.
“What percentage do you collect in this district?” asked Bernice Mennis.
Stefanik said, “It’s a big percentage,” but said she didn’t have the exact breakdown.
After a few skirmishes, much of the progressive bloc exited the fire hall, while the pro-GOP ground chortled in the front row.
Another flashpoint came when attendees asked Stefanik to answer for Trump’s war on the press, and his use of the phrase “enemy of the people,” which has been historically used by dictators.
Stefanik noted the one-year anniversary of the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was slain at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a killing the CIA attributed to a directive by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
“The U.S. needs to stand up strongly for the freedom of the press, and in our foreign policy negotiations, we have to absolutely,” Stefanik said.
She said she’s a supporter of local media, and acknowledges getting tough questioning by local editorial boards.
“I disagree with the president’s rhetoric,” she said. “But I do believe he’s frustrated with bias he’s been shown in office.”
Pro-Trump comments were met with hearty approval from the crowd, several of whom wearing Trump’s trademark red baseball caps.
“He’s a non-traditional leader,” Stefanik said. “People voted for Donald Trump because they wanted something different.”
Stefanik answered dozens of questions at the event, carving out areas where she differs with the Trump administration, including pulling troops out of Syria, a measure she has called a “misguided and catastrophic blow to our national security interests” that allowed Turkey to attack Kurds in Syria. The Kurds have been a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Syria. She said she plans on introducing a bill that would place sanctions on Turkey.
Stefanik also said Congress should work to lower prescription drug prices; bolster funding to prevent military suicides; and that the EPA should enforce the “Good Neighbors” provision of the Clean Air Act which requires states to ensure air pollution generated in their home states doesn’t harm downwind neighbors.
And rising debt, she said, is an “existential crisis.”
Another leading priority is election security, she said, including staving off threats of election interference from Russia.
U.S. was successful in culling misinformation in 2018 and ensuring elections were secure, she said.
“We need more of that in 2020.”
But she also expressed support for more conservative orthodoxy like cutting taxes, calling Congress to pass a tax relief package by the end of the year, and renewed vows to protect gun rights.
Stefanik, largely considered a rising star by Republicans, also said she would not run for the White House or U.S. Senate, and renewed a pledge taken in 2014 during her first run for the North Country congressional seat that she would only serve five terms.
Stefanik faces re-election in 2020, and is poised for a rematch with Tedra Cobb, a Democrat who ran against her in 2018.