By Sue Henninger
ITHACA – “This is what democracy looks like,” a 400-plus crowd chanted in the gymnasium of Southside Community Center as they waited for Congressman Tom Reed to arrive for a Town Hall meeting last week.
Reed represents New York’s 23rd Congressional District, which covers the Southern Tier, Finger Lakes, and Western New York, and is a member of the Committee on Ways and Means where he addresses issues of tax policy, trade, health care, and Social Security. Despite the frigid temperature, several hundred constituents who were not able to obtain an admission ticket remained outside, where the meeting was broadcast to them.
Southside’s Board President, Dr. Nia Nunn, opened the meeting with an explanation of what the agency has meant, and continues to mean, to the Tompkins County area.
“We provide programs to all underserved people around the county,” she said.
Adding that Southside, while unapologetically black, affirms, empowers, and brings all people together with positive programming, Nunn requested that attendees “channel their power in a peaceful and respectful manner” so that the dialogue begun in the meeting could continue afterwards.
Despite this, things got off to a rocky start. When Reed told the group that he’d heard they thought he wouldn’t make a stop in Ithaca but he made a point of it because, “I care”, he was directly challenged by an audience member who shouted out “Do you?”
Reed responded that he wanted to engage in conversation and that he appreciated people’s passion and their willingness to show up that morning. He requested that the meeting open with the Pledge of Allegiance, the recitation of which was somewhat lackluster, until the final line when many in the audience loudly proclaimed, “And justice for all!”
The initial questions for the congressman dealt with health care, in particular the Affordable Care Act and single-payer insurance. Reed noted that he supports replacing “Obamacare” using a three-phase process, which he believes will be completed over the course of several years. Emphasizing that he does not agree with political representatives who want to eliminate the entire current health care program immediately; Reed said that Medicaid should be changed in a responsible way noting, “What we want is a health care system that is efficient and effective.”
Some attendees retorted, “Single payer!” while others cried out, “We want your health insurance!”
Reed replied: “I do not support a single payer health care system.”
After asserting that a single payer system would require too much government involvement, Reed and Cynthia Henderson engaged in a brief debate. Appealing to him, she asked if, instead of simply abolishing Affordable Care which has been positive for many, he had a health care plan in mind that would work for the whole nation so people wouldn’t lose their insurance.
Reed observed that people have told him they can’t afford ACA’s high premiums. High deductibles can be addressed and fixed, Henderson countered, adding, “Instead of making this personal, make it about the American people.”
Another woman spoke about plans to defund Planned Parenthood, which she contended that a wide spectrum of people use (instead of obstetrics and gynecology services) for many valid reasons.
“You want to defund this [organization] because of your personal beliefs,” she said, accompanied by loud cheering and sign waving. “Those are not the beliefs of those you serve!”
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton challenged Reed as well, saying that the proposed funding cuts for health care would negatively affect individuals, counties, and New York state.
“People aren’t insured, they delay getting health care or use the emergency room, and they die,” she said passionately, as attendees stomped their feet and applauded appreciatively, “How can you possibly say that this is an acceptable compromise?”
There were also questions for Reed about his views on environmental policy.
“I support continuation of the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency),” Reed declared.
He then clarified that he believes it’s essential to consider the cost/benefit ratio of clean water and air versus regulations.
“Where I stand is that I support an EPA that is reasonable,” he said in his concluding statement. “We will call out EPA in overregulation.”
It was not well-received by the audience.
There have been reports that some sections of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be drastically defunded.
“This is an issue we hope we can work on together,” Reed said, suggesting that he and Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick schedule a meeting to discuss urban housing issues in Tompkins County in greater detail.
Reed then stepped outside to answer questions from the throng waiting patiently in the snow. In terms of education policy, he supports charter schools and school choice. However, he added that these shouldn’t be promoted at the expense of providing quality public education to all students. Additionally, he champions giving more power to local school boards to come up with programs and curriculum that will best fit their communities.
Reed’s position on Social Security was questioned as well. He plans to continue to support the program but cautioned that maintaining the status quo of the current system will mean that Social Security won’t be available to coming generations. He told the crowd that they need to remain mindful of the fact that it’s not just individuals who pay taxes, it’s businesses as well.
The congressman drew sounds of approval and vigorous clapping from shivering bystanders when he affirmed that he opposes discrimination against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer community, and that “Team Reed” stands in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Putting in a plug for free speech, Reed declared that he and his staff appreciated so many Tompkins County residents coming out to exercise their First Amendment rights.
“Dialogue is democracy,” he stated. “Town Halls are democracy in action!”