By Sarah Hall
Since the November 2016 election, several groups and individuals have been asking: Where’s John Katko?
The 24th District representative has not scheduled an open town hall forum for the Congressional recess, though many representatives across the country do so during the winter break. Other Republican representatives have faced harsh criticism in similar forums for their support of President Donald Trump. Local progressives claim Katko’s failure to set up a local event reflects his unwillingness to represent the entirety of his constituency.
“I feel that for John Katko to refuse a town hall with his constituents is a display of either blatant refusal to do his job or pure ignorance of his job,” said Tiesha McNeal of Syracuse, a member of the CNY Solidarity Coalition. “He is supposed to be the singular reflection of our collective voices. How can he be when he has made himself deaf to our concerns?”
In a statement, the CNY Solidarity Coalition pointed out that Katko promised when elected he would hold regular town hall meetings.
“I pledge to have an open-door policy — to provide qualified and concise constituent service, to hold regular town hall meetings, and to always put the jobs of the people of the 24th Congressional District ahead of my own,” he wrote in an email to constituents on Nov. 13, 2014.
While he has held several telephone town halls and forums on specific issues, including one on the heroin epidemic set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, at Cayuga Community College, Katko has yet to hold an open-forum town hall event, despite calls from groups like the CNY Solidarity Coalition to do so.
On Feb. 16, Katko issued a statement explaining his choice.
“Over the course of the past month, a national political movement called ‘Indivisible’ has developed across the country. This is a group fueled by outside, progressive interests,” he said. “I will not allow a national outside group to hijack service to my district or disrupt meaningful engagement with my constituents…. By flooding my office with hundreds of calls and holding regular protests, they are only hurting their neighbors.”
Maureen Curtin of Onondaga, an organizer for the CNY Solidarity Coalition, which is part of the Indivisible movement, rejected Katko’s assessment.
“John Katko is trying to deflect attention from his party’s cowardly refusal to challenge a range of immoral and unconstitutional attacks on people around the country and in our district,” Curtin said. “If Katko will not even engage in a free exchange ideas in a public forum with his own constituents, then his constituents will come together at the grassroots to organize people politically to do the job that John Katko won’t do: protect one another. We don’t need to wait to the next election to do that work.”
Curtin, an associate professor of English at SUNY Oswego, said she helped to form CNY Solidarity after several of her students were threatened or harassed in the wake of the election. Curtin worked on campus to address what she could but eventually turned to the Syracuse Peace Council and the CNY Workers’ Center, which works with immigrant and refugee workers, for further options.
“On Nov. 13, more than 100 people turned out for our initial meeting,” she said. “The response was so large that parallel meetings had to be conducted on the top and bottom floors of the Center for Peace and Social Justice.”
The group, whose stated goal is to “organize people power in the region in an effort to resist the violence and exploitation of the Trump-Pence-Ryan agenda,” now has more than 1,400 people on its listserv. Between 150 and 400 people come to its weekly meetings, and the same number turn out for weekly rallies and protests. The coalition meets regularly at 3 p.m. on Sundays at locations around the city of Syracuse. Meetings are announced on the group’s Facebook page and at cnysolidarity.org, where interested individuals can also sign up to join the listserv for information about votes, protests, campaigns and opportunities to volunteer.
In particular, the group is working to get Katko to host a town hall. An online petition on their site now has more than 1,500 signatures. They say a town hall is necessary to ensure their voices are heard by their representative.
McNeal, a self-professed liberal Democrat, said she personally has called Katko’s office, and she has felt unheard.
“I have called Rep. Katko’s office on several occasions now regarding the refugee ban, universal healthcare, climate justice and the refusal to hold a town hall,” she said. “I have left messages on most occasions. When I have reached an aide, I was politely listened to, but that was all. This to me equates to no response.”
But representatives from Katko’s office said others from the Indivisible movement have been less than polite.
“These individuals call our office daily — sometimes hourly — and have harassed members of our staff and caused incidents warranting the attention of the Capitol Police and local law enforcement,” said Erin O’Connor, Katko’s communications director. “[These are] individuals who are not interested in a productive dialogue — rather, they are more interested in following the Indivisible playbook which instructs chanting, booing, interrupting, etc.”
“Indivisible: A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda,” which can be found at indivisibleguide.com, was authored by former Congressional staffers who have adopted Tea Party tactics after witnessing their success against President Obama’s agenda. The guide identifies the strengths of the Tea Party movement — local, grassroots organization and defensive strategy over policy positions — as well as their weaknesses, which include verbal assaults on members of Congress. The guide does advise calling for town hall meetings and regular phone and letter campaigns, and it does recommend booing and chanting when members of Congress are unresponsive to questions.
In his statement, Katko said he has met with various members of local Indivisible groups.
“Having spoken with several of these individuals, I have seen that many of them are sincere, and truly want to engage in a constructive conversation. I have and will continue to make myself available to such individuals,” he said. “Unfortunately, others have made very clear that their foremost goal is to cause disruptions.”
Katko went on to say he will continue to meet with the residents of the 24th District.
“I have and will continue to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the constituents that I represent across Onondaga, Cayuga, Wayne and Oswego counties,” he said. “But I will not allow a small, yet vocal, group dictate the terms on which I do so.”
But for the members of the CNY Solidarity Coalition, that’s not enough.
“I would like John Katko to hold a town hall because there needs to be dialogue and agreement. He needs to hear and fully understand the position of his constituents. We need to know that he is fully invested in representing us, not strictly representing his party,” McNeal said. “Is he willing to look us in the eyes, shake our hands and pledge to represent us? Is he willing to earn our trust? The first step in earning trust is being willing to listen. To not meet with us face to face is an act of dishonesty.”
Maureen Curtin of the CNY Solidarity Coalition said the following are among many questions the group has for Rep. John Katko, should he host a town hall meeting:
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.