Congressmember Dan Donovan – who will face off against former seat-holder and convicted felon Michael Grimm next year in what is sure to be a heated primary election – faced a cafeteria-full of Brooklyn constituents on Saturday, November 18 at Fort Hamilton High School as part of his “Coffee with Your Congressman” tour.
The highly attended face-to-face came on the heels of heavy backlash from some of the pol’s southern Brooklyn constituents with respect to Donovan’s resistance to holding an in-person town hall on this side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
That resistance has resulted in a number of protests, sit-ins and even the first-ever constituent-hosted town hall held in April, an invitation to which Donovan declined. He has instead opted for social media-streamed and tele-town halls, citing a more peaceful and structured nature.
Though at times contentious, the bulk of Saturday’s sit-down went quickly and quietly with constituents who had taken numbers asking questions in an orderly fashion. However, with much of Donovan’s responses consisting of “I don’t know” and “I’ll have to look at the bill before taking a stance,” tensions were on a steady incline from start to finish (in the end erupting in chants of “Do your job!”).
Furthermore, the crowd, which boasted at least 150 people, was sprinkled with “Handmaids” – female constituents dressed in red robes and white bonnets (mirroring those worn in the hit Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is set in a totalitarian society) in protest of Donovan’s voting record on access to abortion, which, the Handmaids contend, has been inconsistent with the pol’s previous promises. This was the group’s second appearance at one of Donovan’s “Coffee” events, though the first time they participated as part of the audience.
“I was really impressed with how many people showed up to Bay Ridge – Handmaids and non-Handmaids alike,” said group organizer and Ridge resident Rachel Brody, noting that, at the Gravesend iteration of the event, only 11 questions were asked (the last of which was hers) and, at the Staten Island event the Handmaids protested outside of, she had heard there was a low turnout.
Also impressive, Brody said, was how many constituents made it out to the pol’s final “Coffee” event – held in Staten Island just one day after the one in the Ridge.
What was not as impressive, Brody noted, was Donovan.
“I think Dan has a pretty predictable way of responding to questions, and I don’t think we got much more out of him than I expected in terms of solid answers,” she said, adding that a young girl who had pushed hard enough for the pol to say he would vote “no” on a clean DREAM Act was the best she’d seen someone surpass his “deflection.”
“Often he’ll talk about how he’s not on a committee or not an expert, and he contradicts himself – he says on an issue like climate change that he believes the scientists, or that on an issue like military budgeting he trusts the generals, but then he turns around and votes ‘yes’ on HR36 (the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act) where he not only justifies his vote with junk science, but then admits he hasn’t even read that junk science.”
Bay Ridge resident Teri Brennan agreed.
“I went to the meeting with an open mind and left very disappointed,” she said. “Donovan was completely unprepared to discuss most of the topics raised, even those that had come up in previous meetings and even legislation on which he has voted. He continually deflected with responses like ‘I don’t know enough about that to give an answer.’ That is unacceptable to me.
“By contrast,” she went on, “the vast majority of those asking questions were extremely knowledgeable and prepared.”
Among the well-prepared was a local resident named Svetlana who had hoped the topic of immigration – and the subsequent topic of anti-immigrant sentiment – would have been addressed at greater length.
Her question, which she did not get to ask due to time – though, she noted, the event started late – focused on Islamophobia, which was never even brought up. The sister-in-law to a Muslim man and aunt to Muslim nieces, Svetlana had hoped, at the Bay Ridge event, to tell her story.
“My not-even-three-year-old niece, while traveling back from Turkey (where her brother-in-law’s parents live) was scrutinized three times,” she told this paper. “Two people had to hold her while she was getting extra photographs and searches. She was screaming at the top of her lungs. My brother-in-law very seriously considered moving somewhere else. He’s a green card holder [but] has to go through this every year now, and put his young children through this.”
Svetlana had planned to challenge Donovan on his support of a Muslim ban, and what he has done – most notably since the 2016 election – to protect his Muslim constituents from harassment and discrimination.
“My biggest impression regarding the congressman was that he was simply not doing his job,” she said. “I cannot count how many times he said that he didn’t read the bill (including bills that he had actually signed), hasn’t looked at the bill, etc. He made folksy jokes about people ‘doing their homework’ when he himself apparently does neither his homework nor his job.”
Other hot button (and oft-revisited) topics included net neutrality, temporary protected status, gun reform, climate change and, of course, his close ties to President Donald Trump.
However, Donovan did collect some praise as a number of attendees opened their statements with thanks to the pol for hearing his district’s concerns and voting against the most recent iterations of both the healthcare and tax overhauls, citing their negative effects on New Yorkers.
Donovan also repeatedly promised to look into issues that had been brought up and get back to questioners on their specific concerns.
As for his office’s take on the event, a Donovan spokesperson told this paper, “The sad reality with some political activists is that if Congressman Donovan walked on water, they’d criticize him for not knowing how to swim. Hundreds of constituents attended his five town hall events for constructive conversation, and his door has and will continue to be open to anybody who wants to speak with him about an issue of concern.”
There were five “Coffee with Your Congressman” events in total – three in Staten Island, where the pol spends most of his time, and two in Brooklyn. The in-borough iteration that preceded Fort Hamilton’s was held at Boody Intermediate School in Gravesend on November 12.
The 11th district includes all of Staten Island and a swathe of southern Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights and Gravesend.