Having your senator come back from Washington to take questions from constituents seems like it should be standard practice. It’s a feedback loop! It feels so functional.
But let’s be clear, elected officials have to hold them and people have to show up in order for the whole relationship to work. I attended Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s town hall in Brooklyn to peer into this part of the democratic process, looking (hoping?) for transparency, humanity and candor.
Quick assessment: It more or less happened that way.
Last night’s event, at the Pratt Institute, was Gillibrand’s second of three in a row. She held one for constituents in Manhattan on Wednesday; she held another in the Bronx today. There was no specific agenda or theme to these meetings, according to Gillibrand’s staff, other than “hearing from as many constituents as possible.” People could ask whatever they wanted.
And she opened by playing to her Brooklyn audience, touting local craftsmanship, business and manufacturing.
“We have this amazing culture of making things that people want to buy — to be innovators, to be entrepreneurs,” said Gillibrand. “I have a lot of issues I want to work on and ways to enhance that.”
The large auditorium was only about a third full (hey, it’s August), and from the eight or so people I spoke with they attended because it was not totally inconvenient: one woman lived across the street, several others I spoke with worked at Pratt, another young man was a student there. One woman did travel from Midwood — a trek! — with a specific question on federal funding cuts to the program that pays for her mother’s home health aide (the woman didn’t get to ask her question, but plans to write the senator).
Here are some other questions asked:
What concrete steps can the government be taking to reunite the remaining migrant families, once and for all? Gillibrand did not give direct, concrete solutions to move out of the crisis at hand other than “we should do everything we can.” Instead she spoke of more global reforms to immigration policy and taking steps to help people seek asylum.
How will the Democratic Party defend the Mueller investigation? That one was from a fifth-grader, by the way. Gillibrand told the eager young citizen that Democrats are trying to make sure that the Republicans do not obstruct justice, or enable the president to obstruct justice.
Here in New York, will you support Democratic challengers to members who formed the Independent Democratic Conference? "I'm not here to make any endorsements today. But I do not support the IDC. This state has overwhelmingly elected a Democratic Senate. It should be a democratic senate."
The more general: why are the Democrats letting the Trump administration get away with everything?! "If we take back the House and Senate it’s really important that we create oversight and accountability over the Trump administration. It’s the most important thing we can do."
Gillibrand is a shrewd politician. She did not always give direct answers to certain questions, but shared relevant information in those moments instead. That’s obviously not the most satisfying. But, to be perfectly honest, I was more curious about the effect of the exchange itself. Does showing up, getting face to face with your elected representative, strengthen the democratic process — just on its face?
Perhaps yes. People like it when you give them time, elected officials! One woman, in a dig at Chuck Schumer, prefaced her question during the event: “We’re so glad you’re holding town halls so regularly, unlike another senator that also is from New York.” So there.
And, besides facing your constituents, convening people isn’t a bad idea either.
Charlene Davis said she decided to attend because — specific issues aside — she’s concerned with how divided the nation is and the tenor of debate. As a public school educator, she said, she was alarmed by the message being sent to young people.
“The government was something we were always able to look up to,” Davis said. “And because of the division, the disharmony, the acrimony, the infighting — I’m concerned that our leaders are not focusing.”
Jessica Hochman said she decided to attend with her 8-year-old daughter because “being a mom makes me a better civic participant.”
It’s a reason that resonated with me, too. That need to set an example, to muffle some internal cynicism about politics and at least offer your kids a look at the potential in a democratic process.
“I have a very powerless feeling a lot of the time,” said Hochman. “So all the small things I can do — I have to remind myself — I have to do these things,” she said of showing up.
The town hall seemed to breeze by. In all, there were about a dozen questions asked. But Gillibrand did stay for pictures afterward, and took a selfie with every single person who wanted one. Many of them did.