This Saturday, March 11, Republican Congressman Tom Reed is hosting a highly anticipated town hall in Ithaca, NY, one of the most populous cities in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. It’s unlikely to be a dispassionate affair. Ithaca is located in Tompkins County, the only county that voted against the Congressman by a factor of more than two to one in his successful 2016 bid for reelection. This visit follows a sit-in in his Ithaca office to demand, in part, the opportunity for open engagement in a public forum. At a time when many GOP representatives are avoiding town halls rather than holding them, we commend Congressman Reed for showing up and responding to his constituents’ persistent actions, calls and invitations to meet with them in person; we hope he comes with an open mind.
This will be Reed’s fifth town hall this year. The first four were held on February 18th and he will be making three additional stops immediately after his time in Ithaca. But it is unclear that Congressman Reed is incorporating the discontent his constituents have expressed into his decision-making. The Congressman has not yet shifted his positions on any of the most controversial issues that have upstate New Yorkers gravely concerned: health care and the fate of the Affordable Care Act, environmental protections, and the release of President Trump’s taxes, to name a few. We hope that he does not treat his visit to Ithaca as a pro-forma “listening” session that amounts to little more than checking a box, without any change in his views; doing so would be a missed opportunity to rethink and realign his positions with the best interests of his constituents.
In a predominantly red district of 717,000, Ithaca’s largely liberal 30,000 residents are outnumbered. The District’s electoral math suggests that Reed could treat this town hall as little more than ceremonial. In one of his town halls last month, a woman countered his remarks by saying “we won’t reelect you again.” Reed replied calmly: “oh, I’m not worried about reelection.” Now, Congressman Reed can argue that the intent of his words was to focus on issues, not vote counts, but past experience shows that the math is on his side. New York’s 23rd District is badly gerrymandered, a byproduct of the GOP’s REDMAP project in 2012 which eliminated New York’s 29th District and engulfed liberal Ithaca into the reliably red 23rd. The proliferation of so-called safe districts for incumbents poses significant risk to our democracy as a driver of poisonous partisanship. Instead of incentivizing elected officials to find balance between their conservative and liberal constituents, too many districts are drawn in ways that allow one political leaning or another to be neutralized. Ithaca finds itself in this position now, but though its residents represent a voting minority, we offer our views in the interest of the District’s majority.
Health care is in the interest of everybody. While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has flaws, a wholesale repeal of it is not the answer and the just-released GOP replacement plan is not the fix. Under the ACA, the 23rd District’s uninsured rate fell from 9.7% to 6.2%. Ensuring the District’s coverage levels don’t backslide is paramount to empowering our communities. Rising premiums and deductibles are a serious concern under the ACA, but the replacement plan, as written, would exacerbate this problem, not solve it, with premiums estimated to rise by 30% or more in coming years. “This is a plan that empowers individuals with choice”, Congressman Reed has said of the proposed replacement. But if you can’t afford those choices, then choice is an illusion. There are currently 86,100 individuals in the 23rd District covered by the ACA’s Medicaid expansion who could lose coverage if the GOP’s American Health Care Act ends the expansion by 2020, as currently proposed. 7,700 of these individuals live in Tompkins County with the rest elsewhere in the District. The common denominator is this: the well-being of the 23rd is intimately tied up with maintaining Medicaid’s expansion and preserving the access, affordability and quality of care that the ACA provides. And incidentally, those 86,000 Medicaid beneficiaries represent a constituency nearly double the size of the Congressman’s margin of victory in the last election.
As with health care, prevention is the best medicine and is the cheapest course of action in the long run. The same can be said about the environment. While the Congressman has said that he’s dedicated to preserving the EPA’s core mission - ensuring clean air and water - his actions undermine his words. Congressman Reed votes in favor of pro-environmental legislation just six percent of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters. But he has an opportunity to course correct by opposing current efforts to cut 25% of the EPA’s budget, a move that “would cause untold - and perhaps irreparable - damage to New York’s rivers, lakes, and drinking water” according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a March 9th letter to the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and EPA. Additionally, these cuts may jeopardize future opportunities for local EPA grants that have historically provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to Tompkins County as well as to other counties in the District like Chautauqua, which leveraged the agency’s support to raise billions more for “clean up and redevelopment activities”.
It would be a mistake to write off the positions the Congressman will hear tomorrow from his Ithacan and Tompkins County constituents. In fact, the views he hears there will likely be more aligned with the majority interests of his district than those the Congressman currently supports. Ithaca has significant common ground with its neighbors and the 23rd District’s voter allegiances may prove to be less immoveable than Reed. Redistricting may have reduced the influence that Ithacans have on their congressman, but it has done nothing to reduce the impact of their congressman on Ithacans. Just as district lines can shift, the positions of elected officials can - and should - too.
Allison and Vanessa are sisters who both work in the environment and climate space and grew up in Ithaca, NY.