NY congressman Antonio Delgado’s master class in how to connect with voters

As Democrats across the country anxiously awaited the results of Nevada’s 2020 primary, I ventured out on a warm Saturday in Upstate New York to attend the thirty-fifth town hall held by Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado. Congressman Delgado represents my district, the 19th congressional district, a geographic monster encompassing 11 counties and 163 towns. The town hall was held in the meeting room of one of the district’s volunteer fire departments. By the time I arrived, the parking lot was full. Cars and trucks were parked along the sides of the roadway, forcing people to inch their way along the county route as cars whizzed by.

There was an energy in the crowded room that surely had to do with the fact that we’re on the cusp of choosing a candidate to challenge Trump in the 2020 election. Town halls, like the one that day, are by far the best place to observe how elected officials connect (or don’t) with constituents and respond extemporaneously to questions on issues and legislation. Congressman Delgado did a great job. He seemed to enjoy connecting with constituents and responding to the challenge of explaining his positions.

Things weren’t always this way in the 19th district. Anger, distrust, and divisiveness festered during the two years of one-term Republican Congressman John Faso’s tenure, due to his refusal to be held accountable in public forums by constituents who disagreed with his perspective on a range of topics.

In fact, Faso’s surprise defeat in 2018 most likely was the result of the breakdown of the constituent-representative relationship. Almost two years into Delgado’s term, town halls like the one I recently attended show that large numbers of voters continue to search for opportunities to gather together and discuss issues respectfully and thoughtfully.

Congressman Delgado began his remarks by reminding us of his success with introducing and co-sponsoring a slew of popular bills—four of which have been signed into law and nine of which have been passed by the House but are doomed to gather dust behind the wall erected by Republican Senate Majority Leader McConnell. Delgado then outlined his commitment to pursuing his job in Washington with a perspective “informed by constituents.” Explaining the challenge of that commitment and his goal of building consensus beyond party lines, Delgado reminded us that the district is evenly split into one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Independent. In the congressman’s words, “Since two-thirds of constituents are not part of my party, I’ve got to think bigger than just my party.” Understandably, Delgado, who is African American, skipped over the fact that the 19th district is nearly 90 percent white. I imagine that fact poses an additional challenge for a congressman who had to rise above a shameful campaign of racist innuendo in order to win his seat in 2018.

The surprise of the day was the absence of any references by the congressman or the audience to Trump, Mitch McConnell, impeachment, lawlessness, or any of the scandals du jour. I had expected more overt expressions of the anxiety most Democrats share about the prospect of four more years of Trump and Trumpism. The closest the discussion got to that thorny topic was a back and forth about the need to dismantle the electoral college and the fairness of having majority vote prevail. Not surprisingly, that was the topic that drew the loudest and most sustained applause. Beyond that, the concerns that audience members spoke to ranged from the hyper-local to the global: from the difficulties of apple farmers to hire enough seasonal migrant labor, to the efficacy of incarceration versus treatment to address the local opioid crisis, to bail and criminal-justice reform, to the health hazards and regulation of e-cigarettes, to Medicare and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, to veteran unemployment, to big banks and the Federal Reserve. Climate change was also on the agenda, as was a moving plea for the congressman to consider adding his name to a bill that would withhold federal funding until the Israeli government ceases the indefinite detention of Arab minors.

Just when it seemed that the town hall would draw to a close, the issue of a federal law requiring child vaccination was raised. That was the one issue that seemed to divide the audience. It quickly became obvious that anti-vaccination advocates had come to the meeting in large numbers specifically to impress upon the congressman their disagreement with mandated vaccination. Once the town hall was over, anti-vaccination advocates were stationed at the exit, handing out flyers that claimed to “provide the facts.”

I took the flyer to look at once I got home. It now sits on my desk. It’s there as a reminder that we will always have disagreements and differing points of view. The question is, can enough of us find a way—as Congressman Delgado has—to overcome our differences and build consensus? One way or another, we’ll know the answer in November.