On the same day as members of local grassroots organization Fight Back Bay Ridge hit the pavement with flyers about an upcoming constituent-organized town hall, the one politician the group had hoped would attend — Congressmember Dan Donovan — instead unveiled to the public the latest of his own telephone-town hall and Facebook Live events.
The constituent-driven town hall will take place on Wednesday, April 19 at the Bay Ridge Manor (476 76th Street), organized by members of Fight Back Bay Ridge in collaboration with the Bay Ridge Democrats, South Brooklyn Progressive Resistance and Staten Island Women Who March. But, Donovan will not be there.
The groups had hoped that Donovan (who has been the target of at least 10 protests since the New Year, many of which have included pleas from Brooklyn constituents to meet with them face-to-face, instead of hosting online or over-the-phone town halls) would show. However, according to co-founder of Fight Back Bay Ridge Mallory McMahon, the pol — who represents the 11th Congressional District in Staten Island and southwest Brooklyn — has formally declined numerous invitations.
“I invited him in person,” McMahon told this paper, stressing also that, after struggling to schedule a face-to-face with the pol at either of his New York offices, she and her partner Alan instead “went to D.C. because getting a meeting with him in Brooklyn was so challenging.”
McMahon said she began reaching out to Donovan’s office to schedule a meeting in early January, but did not receive a response until mid-February after, she claims, she informed his staff that she was one of a number of protesters who had descended upon the pol during an appearance at a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce forum. “I was then almost immediately offered a meeting that I was able to take during his recess in February, but it was changed at the last minute to a day and time that didn’t work for me because of a protest that was going to take place during the same time outside of his Brooklyn office.”
Then, McMahon said, she was informed that she would not be able to meet with Donovan until his next recess — the same week as the upcoming town hall.
“I said, ‘April’s not really acceptable to me.’ I wasn’t getting anywhere so eventually I said to his scheduler, ‘I’ll just come to D.C.,’” she recalled.
There, during the week of the then-scheduled, now-tabled vote on the American Health Care Act, she was able to discuss her own concerns as a constituent of a Republican congressmember during the presidency of Donald Trump. She also extended a personal invite to the upcoming town hall.
“He responded by saying that he feels misunderstood by his constituents, and that we assume that he’s just toeing the Republican party line,” McMahon said. “I said, ‘I think that’s all the more reason just to meet with them in a town hall setting.’
“I think, at a town hall, he might surprise a lot of people,” she added, citing Donovan’s vote on a bill making it illegal to shoot sleeping animals in hibernation. “As a vegan, that is something that I care about,” said McMahon, “and, if I wasn’t paying attention as closely as I am, I would’ve never known that he voted in agreement with me.”
Since Donovan won a special election to replace disgraced former Congressmember Michael Grimm in May, 2015, the pol has yet to hold a town hall on this side of the Verrazano.
“He’s saying that tele-town halls are an appropriate alternative when things are too hot,” McMahon said, “and that [in-person] town halls are too full of protesters. I strongly disagree for many reasons.”
One of them, she said, is the limitations remote town halls place on the pol’s senior constituents, many of whom don’t have access to the Internet but want to be informed.
McMahon mentioned a neighbor of her mother’s who is in her 70s, who she said is “excited” to attend the constituent-organized town hall. “She and her friends, all of them in their 70s, are coming,” said McMahon. “They would never be able to be a part of a Facebook town hall or a tele-town hall because they have no idea that they’re even happening, or the first thing about gaining access to them.
“The only way these Facebook and telephone town halls are being publicized is on the Internet, and that keeps a good majority of Donovan’s district in the dark,” McMahon contended. “We can’t let Donovan’s silence become the community’s ignorance.”
The constituent-organized town hall, which is currently accepting questions ahead of time online, as well as RSVPs (but will also accept day-of walk-ins) will include a panel of experts on everything from healthcare, immigration, education, housing and security to veteran and LGBTQ issues, education and reproductive rights. Several organizations, including the Council on American–Islamic Relations, the New York State Nurses Association, Staten Island 4 Change, the Jericho Project, Veterans for Peace and the Arab American Family Support Center, have already signed on for the event.
“What we’re trying to do is cast a wide net for speakers to answer not just the questions that are prepared but the questions that emerge,” McMahon said, “as well as open the floor up for discussion.”
Meanwhile, Donovan announced on Friday, April 7 that he will host a live, telephone-town hall on Monday, April 17 followed by three to-be-announced Facebook Live “town halls” to be moderated by local reporters — Rachel Shapiro of The Staten Island Advance, Anthony Pascale of NYI and Paula Katinas of The Brooklyn Eagle.
According to Donovan’s office, the tele-town halls (which caused constituents grief earlier this year when a number of them found it impossible to gain access, despite claims from the pol’s office that 14,000 residents were able to dial in), function similarly to conference calls, and allow thousands of people to ask questions and hear the congressmember’s answers from “the comfort and convenience of their homes.”
“My most fundamental responsibility as your congressman is to represent your interests faithfully in Washington,” Donovan said in a statement. “I need your feedback and opinions to do my job well. Constructive feedback is so important, and I’m excited about these upcoming events.”
Still, McMahon contended, the pol would fare better with something face-to-face.
“I’m interested in what he has to say,” she said, “and I think a lot of others are, too.”
Nonetheless, Donovan’s office sees it otherwise. “The true intentions of these protest groups is finally coming to light,” contended Donovan’s Communications Director Pat Ryan in a statement. “Their goal is to create a media and fundraising spectacle instead of engaging in substantive conversations. The fact is, Congressman Donovan has and will continue to meet with every single person who requests a meeting. He’s met with the founders and members of Fight Back Bay Ridge, as well as other progressive Brooklyn and Staten Island organizations. He’s hosting conference calls that go out to 50,000 households. He’s holding Facebook Live events with local journalists. The facts just don’t support their ridiculous claims. As always, we invite any resident of the 11thCongressional District, who is interested, to request a meeting at donovan.house.gov.”
For more information on the town hall, or to RSVP or submit a question, visit ny11townhall.com. To donate to the event, which has been community-funded, visit www.gofundme.com/ny11townhall.
Staten Island and South Brooklyn residents who wish to sign up for Donovan’s tele-town hall may submit their information on the tele-town hall form under the “Contact” section at donovan.house.gov. The deadline to register is Friday, April 14.
Dates for the Facebook Live events will be announced as they are scheduled.