New York GOP Rep. Tom Reed probably knew what kind of day he was in for when he arrived at the Ashville senior center for his first town hall on Saturday. The crowd was so large the gathering had been moved outside to a slushy parking lot.
"First and foremost, we are going to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare," Reed said at the outset, using a loudspeaker propped up on a ladder to try to reach the sprawling crowd.
The response was loud and sustained boos.
The congressman is just the latest Republican to face boisterous constituents voicing concerns with the nascent Trump White House, and more confrontations are expected as members head home for recess this coming week.
The backlash is happening in prime Trump country. Reed's 23rd District, which encompasses the western tip of southern New York, borders Pennsylvania and includes the more liberal college town of Ithaca. It has more in common with the neighboring Keystone State — which Trump carried — than New York City. It's rural, working-class, and made a big swing for Trump at the ballot box. After narrowly voting for President Obama in 2008, then narrowly going for Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump won the district by almost 15 points, according to calculations by the Daily Kos.
But if Democrats want any hope of making the 2018 race for the House competitive, they've got to put districts like Reed's back on the board — and the early anger in places like Western New York is giving them glimmers of hope.
Repeal and replace — but with what?
Republicans' biggest Achilles heel is front and center as they meet with constituents: their lack of a consensus plan to replace former President Obama's signature health care law, despite making it the cornerstone of their campaign platform for several years.
On Saturday, Reed was repeatedly pressed about how Republicans would propose replacing the ACA. While he said he supported keeping some of the popular provisions in the current law — such as guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and allowing children up to age 26 to stay on their parents' plan — on other issues he didn't have concrete answers, frustrating many in the crowd.
"We're not comfortable with this until you tell us what you're going to do, point by point, to replace our health care," yelled one woman at Reed's second town hall in Cherry Creek.
When one constituent in the earlier Ashville gathering asked for the number of the GOP replacement bill so she could look it up, Reed said he would have his staff get back to her. In fact, there isn't just one bill that's been proposed, but several. President Trump has said he will roll out his alternative next month.
Others in the crowd grew angry as Reed explained why he believed Medicare reform was necessary, with some seniors shouting back that they liked their Medicare the way it was and didn't want it to change. Chants of "Do not privatize!" rang out.
Many shared personal stories as to why the health care law was so critical for them. In Cherry Creek, Mark Jones of Jamestown held up a poster with a picture of his 30-year-old daughter, Lauren, who has cystic fibrosis. Eventually she'll need a double lung transplant. Lauren currently has health care through her employer, Jones said, but if she has to stop working and the rule protecting people with pre-existing conditions ends, that lung transplant may be in jeopardy.
"They had six years to reach across the aisle and fix what was wrong. They didn't do that," Jones said. "They need to come up with a plan, and they need to come up with a plan fast, and it needs to be good."
Tea Party passions reversed
The anger Republicans face as they try to replace Obamacare is almost the reverse of what Democrats saw eight years ago. Back then, Democrats' town halls became raucous as members of the growing Tea Party movement flooded events, angry about the president's health care proposal, stoking fears of not just rising costs but of mythical "death panels."
That feeling of deja vu isn't by accident. Progressive activists are borrowing some of the Tea Party tactics to try and raise awareness online, form action groups and alert locals about events with their representatives where they can raise their concerns.
Some have been using the "Indivisible" guide — a reference for progressive activists who want to reach their representatives and make their voices heard, composed by former Democratic staffers who lived through the advent of the Tea Party town halls. The organization is reaching out to supporters this weekend to start mobilizing for a "week of action" while members of Congress are home.
National Republicans have tried to dismiss the Indivisible groups, claiming they're just providing fake grass-roots support and could include paid protesters. But even many Democrats now acknowledge they made the same arguments eight years ago to try and diminish the rise of the Tea Party — at their peril — which led to a disastrous 2010 midterm election for their party.
Stephen Keefe is one of the leaders of the local Indivisible groups that's sprung up over the past few weeks. He's a former local Democratic councilor and mayor who heard about the group online and decided to get in touch and start a chapter in Western New York.
Reed's meetings on Saturday were in mostly conservative areas of the district, and not by accident, Keefe said. The number of protesters shows how much anger there is toward Reed and GOP policies, he added.
"I think that he is willing to meet with the people and listen to their concerns," Keefe said. "I don't think he's willing to act on them."
Most of the constituents at Reed's two morning town halls were middle-aged or senior citizens, and some carried signs with their ZIP codes saying they certainly weren't being paid. Judy Einach of nearby Westfield bristled at that idea. She and her friends had camped out early on at the Ashville town hall and had secured a prime spot near the front of the huge crowd.
"I don't think we're paid," Einach joked. "We got up early in the morning. We're lucky if we got coffee, and we've been waiting her for a very long time for him."
An anti-Trump backlash?
In addition to health care, many in Reed's crowd repeatedly pressed him over the new president, whom Reed supported early on.
Many people wanted to know why he had voted against a bill in the Ways and Means Committee that would have required Trump to release his income taxes. Reed tried to explain that he had concerns with that bill because of privacy rights, arguing that such an action was "a tremendous amount of power, for the government to come after one individual."
The crowd, not agreeing, drowned him out with chants of "What are you covering up?" and "He's not a private citizen!" At other times, attendees shouted, "Russia! Russia!" — demanding Reed address the president's alleged ties to the country and intelligence findings that Russia had tried to meddle in the U.S. elections to help Trump.
At his Cherry Creek town hall, Reed had a tense exchange with one woman after he said he didn't support further investigation into the Russia issues. Reed said he hadn't seen enough evidence to warrant a probe, but the woman argued other Republicans had called for such action and that it should be a bipartisan issue of national security.
At one point, a friendly face seemed to emerge when a pre-teen girl made her way to the front of the Ashville town hall to ask a question. It wasn't to be: The young girl named Madison asked the congressman why he wanted to do away with the Environmental Protection Agency — and received massive applause for her question. Reed said he didn't want to eliminate it, just roll back burdensome regulations.
Reed stays in the fray
Several in the crowd noted that, to his credit, Reed hasn't shied away from doing town halls, despite the anticipated blowback. In fact, he crisscrossed his expansive district to do a total of four gatherings on Saturday. Neighboring Rep. Chris Collins has refused to hold any town halls, and other GOP members have turned to tele-town halls to try and tamp down on protesters.
Not everyone was there to protest, though. In Ashville, a woman carrying a Trump/Pence sign and a man wearing an Infowars cap — from the conspiracy theory-laden site that backs Trump — stood stoically near Reed.
Mel McGinnis, who donned one of Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" red hats was another Tea Party faithful in the crowd, frustrated with the progressive activists and their interruptions.
"I thought this was going to be a town hall, but it was a mob hall," he said, calling the scene "mob-ocracy."
Despite repeated outbursts throughout the morning and angry chants against him, Reed was not fazed. He kept a smile on his face and almost seemed to relish the exchanges, no matter how hostile they became. Earlier in the week, he even met with some constituents who had engaged in a sit-in at his Ithaca office.
"What I have heard is passion, what I have heard is democracy, and what I have heard is, hopefully, a willingness by many, of each and every one of you to find solutions," he told the crowd in Ashville at the end of the event.
That conciliatory tone, however, was met with chants of "vote Reed out" by the unsatisfied crowd.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Over the past few weeks, angry constituents have packed GOP town halls to voice their concerns on health care, the Trump White House and more. Yesterday, it was Congressman Tom Reed's turn as he crisscrossed his southern New York district to attend four town halls. NPR's Jessica Taylor was there as Congressman Reed was met by overflow crowds who wanted answers and didn't always like the ones that they got.
JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: Constituents had already packed the senior center in the tiny hamlet of Ashville almost an hour before Reed's first town hall was set to start so his staff decided to move the whole event to the parking lot, where snow was just beginning to melt. The topic on most everyone's mind was health care, and Reed's initial statements to the crowd didn't go over so well.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TOM REED: Well, first and foremost, we are going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.
UNIDENTIFIED CONSTITUENTS: (Booing).
TAYLOR: The problem for Republicans is that they haven't settled on one alternative. That's led to tense confrontations at other town halls in Utah and Tennessee. Some in the GOP have claimed the angry attendees are simply paid protesters. But people on Saturday argued they're simply using the same tactics tea party activists used eight years ago. Most of the constituents at Reed's two morning town halls were middle-aged or senior citizens. And some carried signs with their ZIP code, saying they certainly weren't being paid. Judy Einach of nearby Westerfield (ph) bristled at that idea.
JUDY EINACH: I don't think we're paid (laughter). No, we got up early in the morning. We're lucky if we got coffee and have been waiting here for a very long time for him.
TAYLOR: Wearing a red make America great again hat, Mel McGinnis was one of the handful of tea party faithful in the crowd frustrated with the progressive activists.
MEL MCGINNIS: Well, I thought this was going to be a town hall, but it was a mob hall. This was not democracy as it was mobocracy.
TAYLOR: There were other tense moments when several people in the crowd asked Reed about his vote against requiring President Trump to release his taxes.
UNIDENTIFIED CONSTITUENTS: (Chanting) Do your job. Do your job. Do your job.
TAYLOR: Still, the congressman kept a positive tone throughout the yelling and chants.
REED: What I have heard is passion. What I have heard is democracy. And what I have heard is hopefully a willingness by many - of each and every one of you - to come together and find solutions.
TAYLOR: From there, it was on to three more equally frustrated crowds.
Jessica Taylor, NPR News, Jamestown, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.