TWICE OVER THE LAST two months hundreds have gathered in the heart of downtown Kinderhook. That many visitors at once increases the village population by roughly 50%, but in each case the participants fit comfortably on the lawn of the village square and in the short street that runs by the office of Congressman John Faso (R-19th).
People came to tell their representative they’re dismayed by plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, among other concerns, to fault him for not holding “town hall” meetings where they can express their grievances. Neither demonstration disrupted traffic nor caused damage. There was no unruly behavior, either, although at the second gathering February 25 a guy on a motorcycle, disdainful of the protest did try, briefly, to thread his way through the crowd. Most protesters ignored him and he backed away.
It did feel creepy when someone flew a small, consumer-type drone over the crowd. The pilot or “droner”–possibly a TV crew?–was not visible. Two state troopers sat in their vehicles. The State Police have an office a few doors away and there were a lot of people gathered next to a state highway.
After the first demonstration January 28 ended at the square, some protesters walked the short distance to Mr. Faso’s home and spoke with him when he returned from attending events in other parts of the district. A video recording of that encounter, which lasted about 45 minutes on a chilly winter afternoon, shows a passionate exchange, with questions shouted and none of his questioners sounding pleased by the answers he gave them. There’s no such thing as polite democracy.
Despite the absence of disruptions and the efforts that demonstration organizers made to inform the village of their plans, Kinderhook Mayor James Dunham has said he’s considering whether the town needs a mass gathering law or similar local legislation to handle even larger demonstrations in the future. We want mayors to think about such things, but it’s hard to imagine that a village with such limited resources could expect much from these types of laws other than big legal bills for defending them in court.
History likely will prove the mayor correctly anticipated that the frequency and size of demonstrations in Kinderhook will grow while Mr. Faso serves in Congress. Consider the likely reaction to the latest plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act. Introduced in the House of Representatives this week, it would make major cutbacks in Medicaid and give low income people tax breaks they can’t use to buy insurance they can’t afford. Those thoughtless steps alone could affect thousands of people in the 19th District and they and their supporters might well decide to make their voices heard here.
But the Kinderhook square can handle a lot more people than either of the demonstrations so far have attracted. And anyway, the demonstrators are fellow voters who live in this region. The Village Board would do better to consider how to enhance their experience in the community rather than conjure up restrictions. The board should think of its goal as fostering “protest tourism.” Free speech is good for business.
This approach won’t work if the star attraction, Rep. Faso, isn’t willing to have a few showdowns with people who oppose policies he says he supports. Judging from the way he responded to constituents outside his front door, he is equal to the task.
Mr. Faso is two months into a two-year term. Like most members of the House, he has a year to go before he’ll become preoccupied with running for reelection. His website and the steady stream of comments on national and regional issues he releases digitally, plus the photo record of his meetings with groups around the district, prove he is getting out with the voters on his own terms. Remember also that the 19th Congressional District includes all or parts of 11 counties. So it’s hardly surprising that he’s tightly scheduled and hard to track down this early in his first term.
But if the protests continue, he may have no choice but to meet the public in open forums where the debate will get loud and rough. Having already demonstrated the personal strength to stand up to his critics, his failure to engage with voters on equal terms suggests it’s not the crowds that worry him. Perhaps his reason for avoiding open debate is that he’d have to defend what he knows are policies unpopular with the majority of the people he represents.