NY-22 Minute: Brindisi Directly Addresses Impeachment Concerns at New Hartford Town Hall By Luke Perry
This evening Rep. Brindisi displayed some of the political skills that were necessary for a Democrat to defeat a Republican incumbent in a predominately GOP district. Brindisi held his first town hall since the impeachment inquiry began and answered 30 unscripted questions from constituents throughout a packed theater in New Hartford.
“Are we ready?” Brindisi asked, stepping to the podium. The crowd applauded in an eager mix of enthusiasm and tension. Progressive grassroots activists, numbering several dozen, waved green squares in approval, occasionally sprinkling a rally-like quality on the evening.
Brindisi gave his typical short introduction thanking people for coming and highlighting his committee work. He asked everyone to be respectful, a new twist, unnecessary in his previous dozen town halls, where presidential politics was seldom raised. Speaking before a CNN microphone affixed to the podium, Brindisi encouraged the crowd to “show people in Washington what civility looks like.”
Brindisi’s work on veteran affairs and lowering prescription drug costs were among the first topics discussed. He highlighted sponsored legislation to help veterans who are homeless or in danger of losing their home, as well as assist with transportation costs to and from veteran centers where vital services are provided.
Brindisi discussed his bipartisan and bicameral prescription drug efforts. He wants to remove “pay for delay” tactics pharmaceutical companies are using to prevent generics from going to the market and to cap out-of-pocket payments for biosimilar medications, a small but expensive category of prescription drugs.
Brindisi accepted an invitation to join the Congressional Skin Cancer Caucus. He affirmed his commitment to promoting LGBT rights and addressing climate change.
Then the topic of impeachment was raised by a woman driven to tears by the president’s conduct and the recent withdrawal of troops from Syria.
Brindisi said the president’s behavior toward Syria is “wrong” and “shameful,” prompting bipartisan condemnation (official statement here). He believes America needs to support our allies, including the Kurds, and that failure to do so harms our national security interests.
Brindisi has consistently opposed impeachment throughout his 2018 campaign and first term. He received several questions probing his current position, constituting approximately one-third of the total questions posed.
In one dynamic exchange, Brindisi was pressed repeatedly to support the impeachment inquiry and would not. He suggested this was insignificant considering the inquiry is underway and a formal vote to launch the inquiry was unnecessary. The impasse was broken after Brindisi acknowledged he would not say what this constituent hoped he would.
“I didn’t go to Washington to impeach the president,” Brindisi said. He likened his approach to being a “grand jury member” who will consider all the evidence before making a decision on whether to support impeachment charges (official statement here).
To constituents who were concerned the president was being treated unfairly, Brindisi said that if charged, the president would have every opportunity to defend himself in a Senate trial.
Brindisi passionately rebuffed the notion his position on impeachment was purely strategic. “I want to make this clear to people,” Brindisi said, “politics is not on my mind. If voters send me packing next year, so be it.”
“I want to be very fair,” Brindisi added, acknowledging “this is not an easy thing.” He pledged to support this president, or any president, when he helps the country and oppose him, when he harms the country.
Brindisi appeared upset, albeit briefly, by the suggestion that he did not stand up to Democrats. He cited his response to anti-Semitic comments by a Democratic colleague, and policy issues ranging from his opposition to Medicare-for-All to support for the new NAFTA deal negotiated by President Trump. “I say all the time,” Brindisi explained, “where I can work with the president to get things done, I’ll do it.”
There were moments of levity, even in the thick of impeachment imbroglio. When asked to identify at what point the president’s unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation constitutes obstruction, Brindisi replied with a smile, “it’s hard for me to predict what the White House will do.”
At another point, Brindisi was reminded of how he was the only House Democrat in the state to not support the impeachment inquiry. “This wishy washy shoosh is for the birds,” one constituent concluded. “Thank you for not swearing,” Brindisi quipped lightly, then mused about keeping things family friendly.
There were Republican foils, even if the president was not one of them. Brindisi criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for stalling valuable legislation passed by the House, and claimed he has benefited significantly from the influx of money in politics.
Brindisi also criticized Betsy Devos, the Secretary of Education, who he would like to testify before the House. He expressed concern about the college student loan debt crisis and the “insane” two-decade average it takes for someone to repay their loans.
In the end, spirited civility dominated. When incivility arose, tellingly, it was between audience members.
Neither Democrats, nor Republicans, seemed to wholeheartedly embrace all of Brindisi’s views. He knows that and they know that. But both sides appeared to respect the Congressman, even in disagreement and varying degrees of dissatisfaction.
Brindisi commanded the audience, no small feat, under a national microscope, when even the best-laid messaging strategy can easily become derailed.
Brindisi pledged to meet with his critics and further consider their policy suggestions, even ones he is unlikely to embrace. When less informed on a topic, Brindisi asked his staff gather more information.
This approach, one characterized by engagement, a little humility, and the ability to be reasoned with, more than any individual position, has enabled Brindisi to win this pivotal seat, and remain the favorite to retain it, at least for now.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College
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