Following the 2016 presidential election, there was a historic increase in political activism as constituents from around the nation began voicing concerns about the president’s executive orders, staff appointments and proposals on health care, immigration, the environment, trade agreements, taxes and foreign policy.
“I became heavily involved in local politics for the first time in my life after the election of Donald Trump in 2016,” said Catherine Tedford, who has lived in Colton (St. Lawrence County) for 27 years.
And in perhaps one of the largest public displays of global activism, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington exhibited a new wave of political fervor. In Glens Falls alone, 1,500 women and men marched through downtown.
“An informed electorate would have seen the dangers of Trump,” said history professor Ralph Young of Temple University, an expert on political dissent who recently gave a talk on the subject at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. "It takes 'we' the people to keep it (a republic). If we are apathetic, it won’t always be there.”
Yet the more constituents sought answers from the lawmakers representing them, the more some lawmakers and the president cast them as subversive, paid protesters, bused in from other areas.
Young likens this reaction to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
“Local law enforcement said it was outside agitators,” he said. “Look at what happened with the Third Reich. People were afraid to speak out.”
Barely a month after last year’s women’s march, NY-21 Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, took to Facebook, disparaging people who have protested outside her offices and persistently called her staff.
“This type of intentionally disruptive behavior is unacceptable and unhelpful to civil public discourse. If it gets out of hand, we will continue to contact local law enforcement and U.S. Capitol Police,” Stefanik wrote. “These disruptions have challenged my staff’s ability to continue serving you — our constituents.”
But many of the protesters were Stefanik’s constituents, like Rebecca Christner of Saratoga.
“I participated in a gathering outside Congresswoman Stefanik’s Glens Falls office to encourage her to schedule a town hall meeting. This gathering, estimated to be about 50 people, was peaceful and not disruptive to businesses or residents in the area,” said Christner, adding that it took place on Valentine’s Day. “I carried a sign that read, ‘Show us some love Elise; schedule a town hall.’ ”
Christner continued: “Imagine my surprise and disgust the next day when I read that the congresswoman labeled the demonstrators as being 'disruptive and harassing.' The demonstration was neither disruptive nor harassing.”
A year has passed, and Christner and others are still calling for an open-to-all, live public forum to let Stefanik know how her votes and actions affect their ability to pay for prescription drugs; keep their farms running; buy groceries; and keep their wells, streams and lakes free from contaminants.
“Let me point out,” said Temple University’s Young, “town halls are the essence of democracy and the essence of patriotism. Supposedly, the people are the boss of the representative, not the other way around.”
The power to petition
Some constituents do call Stefanik’s offices every day. According to Stefanik’s staff, they have fielded 31,556 calls since she took office in 2014.
Some write emails, post cards and letters and comment regularly on Stefanik's Facebook page. Many call to find out how the congresswoman is voting before she votes, but they often hear from her staff, “I haven’t had an opportunity to speak with the congresswoman on that vote.”
People like Nicole Clarke of Galway, Barbara Miner of Glens Falls, LoisAnn Jahne of Cambridge and Michael LaCroix of southern Washington County; people like Maria Bosford of Queensbury, Bill Battaglia of Saratoga, Catherine Tedford of Colton, Ray and Nina Matteau of Westport, Rebecca Christner of Saratoga, and 25 others shared details with The Post-Star about their exchanges with the congresswoman and her staff over the past year.
“I have found her to be elusive, deceptive and vague,” said Ray Matteau of Westport. “Clearly she isn’t representing the needs of all her constituents.”
Battaglia of Saratoga said that when he calls to find out Stefanik’s position on issues, her staff is courteous.
“But they almost always claim that she is still studying the issue and has not made up her mind yet,” he said. “One example was on the vote to repeal Obamacare. On that issue, she claimed that she had not made up her mind until the day of the vote in the House. I find this evasive behavior rather cowardly.”
Last March, Clarke, along with seven others, met with Stefanik to discuss public education, access to health care, defense of the Environmental Protection Agency, climate change as a national security issue and integrity in government.
“Stefanik graciously welcomed us into her Glens Falls office and spent more than the allotted 20 to 30 minutes speaking with us. However, she is unwilling — and clearly uncomfortable — debating the merits of different policy approaches," Clarke said. "Like us, she did not support Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' desire to repeal the 'Every Student Succeeds Act,' and it was good to agree on at least that one point.”
“However, once we turned to the issue of the EPA and climate change, she clicked into pre-programmed mode and began touting her 'strong' environmental voting record as compared to her Republican conference colleagues,” she said. “Honestly, that is a weak claim. As a representative from the North Country, environmental stewardship should be one of her top priorities.”
In addition to fielding phone calls, Stefanik’s office has responded to 150,320 constituent letters.
“Our office spends a significant amount of time and effort writing letters to constituents that express our positions on these issues, and Congresswoman Stefanik writes and edits constituent correspondence as well,” said Stefanik spokesman Tom Flanagin in an email.
During a February discussion with The Post-Star editorial board, Stefanik said she reads all letters coming to her office and responses are sent out within two weeks.
For the most part, constituents who spoke with The Post-Star said they get a written response to their queries, but the reply is not specific.
“On more than one occasion, I have called or emailed with a specific question. I received a standard form letter that doesn’t address my specific question at all,” said Maria Bosford of Queensbury. “I think the congresswoman does a good job at playing politician ... She’s just not a very good one when it comes to interacting with constituents, especially the ones that don’t agree with her or fund her campaign.”
Christner said she has contacted Stefanik’s office more than a dozen times in the past 12 months, regarding various issues.
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“She responded to some of my concerns, evidenced by six form letters that I have received that thank me for reaching out to her, and her stated position on each of the six matters covered," Christner said. "My limited interaction with Rep. Stefanik indicates that she is willing to state her position on easily defensible items, such as support for veterans and job training initiatives.
“But when it comes to more complicated matters, such as the fate of DACA, repeal of the ACA or federal gun legislation, she has been less willing to engage in productive discussions that would require a level of compromise that Rep. Stefanik does not appear willing to make,” she said.
Flanagin said the congresswoman takes constituents’ concerns seriously.
“Our staff stays up to date with the congresswoman’s positions on the issues,” Flanagin said. “She also listens to these constituent opinions as she considers items before Congress.”
Town halls vs. phone chats
Bill Battaglia of Saratoga said he is disappointed with Stefanik’s refusal to hold any real town hall meetings.
Stefanik herself said in a report released to Congress last February — “Millennials & the GOP: Rebuilding Trust with an Untapped Electorate” — that holding town halls is one of the four recommended best practices for reaching millennial constituents.
“The beauty of live town halls is that all opinions are in one room and it can create a spark," said Mark Dallas, a professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady. "Often, constituents are not sure how they feel and they get to hear other opinions and that helps them form their own opinions."
In the report, Stefanik advises lawmakers to use a local university or high school to stage a town hall event to better engage with constituents, exactly what NY-21 constituents have asked for repeatedly.
At an April 2017 “Coffee with Your Congresswoman” event held at a senior center in Johnstown, Joe Seeman of Saratoga County asked Stefanik about holding a town hall in the Glens Falls/Saratoga region.
"Will you commit to having a public town hall in a large place that will fit hundreds and hundreds of people, and soon?" Seeman asked.
"So we're working to schedule one in Saratoga/Glens Falls right now," Stefanik responded.
"Not a little event," said Seeman, before getting cut off by the moderator.
Eleven months later, the Glens Falls/Saratoga town hall has not been scheduled, and as of Thursday, Stefanik's staff did not respond to questions about its status.
Despite her written recommendation to other representatives, many of Stefanik’s own constituents say they are relegated to unsatisfying, controlled exchanges with “meeting ground rules” at her offices; smaller venues for middle-of-the-day “Coffee with your Congresswoman;” “tele-town Halls” (over the phone); and a televised public forum in Plattsburgh that was limited to 100 constituents selected by a lottery.
When pressed for a response about these specific constituent concerns, Stefanik and her staff contend they are not a fair depiction of her outreach.
“I’ve had 680 constituent outreach events in the district, including open public events. ‘Coffees with your Congresswoman,’ we do them at a town hall or public library and they are advertised in advance and I get tough questions," Stefanik said during a February meeting with The Post-Star editorial board. "I have done 15 of those.”
Constituent Michael La Croix said such exchanges are held under controlled circumstances and do not allow for a free and open exchange of ideas. La Croix talks about Stefanik’s increasing reliance on spokesman Flanagin, who says Stefanik is always willing to meet with small groups.
“I find this response from her spokesman troubling. First off, these meetings are held in private, with no press ever present, no transcript of the discussion is ever released, and they are often just used as a propaganda photo opportunity for the congresswoman,” La Croix said. "I feel that Rep. Stefanik is failing at constituent communication and outreach.”
Press 3 to ask a question
For a tele-town hall, participants register at least 24 hours in advance of the call. Last week, there was no set time for Tuesday night’s call because of House votes, Flanagin said.
When the call eventually comes, the constituent may or may not be available. "No taking dinner out of the oven if you're waiting," said Sara Carpenter of Queensbury, who has listened in on four or five tele-town halls.
You press a button to get in the question queue, but there's no guarantee you'll be called upon.
“In my opinion, a tele-town hall is a poor substitute for an in-person town hall," said Clarke. “She cannot possibly understand (constituents') daily challenges or the magnitude of their concerns through such a brief, sterile and attenuated form of interaction."
Carpenter has tried to ask a question at each tele-town hall, but has never been called on, and Tuesday was no exception.
The questions Tuesday began with Jeremy from Saratoga who asked the congresswoman about mental health issues and guns. "How do you reconcile that with your vote last year?" he asked, referring to her support for concealed-carry reciprocity.
Stefanik talked about co-sponsoring a bill, giving financial support for school resource officers and other steps she has taken related to guns. But her comments did not answer Jeremy's question.
In this format, Jeremy did not have an opportunity to ask a followup or press for an answer to his question. The moderator, “Tom,” just moved on to the next caller.
There was Willy, who Stefanik said she knew, and the two briefly talked about their work together.
There was Stephen, who asked about the president's tariffs; and the veteran Charles, who said this was the second time he got to ask a question during one of her tele-town halls. He praised the congresswoman before saying “Hillary Clinton should be investigated.”
The tele-town hall that began at 6:04 p.m. ended just about an hour later. About 15 participants had each asked one question. There was no back-and-forth interaction.
“I’ve tried to meet with her on her terms. The cost of my husband’s medicine is a very real and a very dire, life-threatening issue for our family and for so many other families like ours," Carpenter said. “So, I would ask her to please forgive me for being naively persistent; for trying to get my elected representative to be responsive to her constituents and to help our family and millions like ours. Why won’t she respond to her constituents’ genuine concerns and questions?”