Back in March, Representative Chris Collins (NY-27) appeared on a CNN town hall style show hosted by Van Jones when average citizen Renee Sutton confronted him about his lack of town hall meetings here in WNY, and his reluctance to meet with constituents generally.
Although Collins claimed that he didn’t see the value in town hall meetings with constituents, (a topic I broached in this piece in The Public back in March), he promised to meet with Sutton at some point. That meeting happened last week. In a Facebook post last Friday, Sutton relayed what happened:
So, yesterday I finally got my meeting with Rep. Chris Collins. He agreed to meet with me in March, after I asked him on CNN’s The Messy Truth with Van Jones why he was willing to appear on the show but refused to meet with his actual constituents in a town hall setting. That brief interaction on CNN ended with him approaching me in the audience, shaking my hand, giving me his business card (his real business card, with his personal email, cell phone number and everything) and inviting me to contact him anytime to get our future meeting set up. After four months of intermittent attempts to schedule the meeting, I was contacted with very short notice and told that he would be free and in Canandaigua. I contacted Michelle [Schoeneman, candidate for Erie County Legislature), in hope that she could join me, but life conspired to prevent it, and I went solo.
The meeting was held in a conference room at the Ontario County Office Building in Canandaigua, and Collins was accompanied by two male aides, one of whom stayed the entire meeting while the other kept running in and out of the room. Collins came in, shook my hand, and took the seat across from me. I tried a little “break the ice” small talk, but he wasn’t interested. His affect from the start was cold and resentful, and the tone of the meeting was immediately adversarial.
The cameras are off, the audience is gone, and the real Chris Collins showed up.
During the first 15 minutes of the meeting we discussed the AHCA and the premature termination of grant funding for teenage pregnancy programs. The AHCA conversation went nowhere. When he commented that the individual mandate and taxes related to Obamacare were job killers, I smilingly responded something to the effect of “yet somehow the president managed to add one million jobs since January.” He visibly did not appreciate that comment, and shot me down with a comment about the medical device tax never having been implemented anyway and a snide, “you didn’t know that, did you?”
Weird, because Collins has been so vocal about that medical device tax, you’d have thought it had not only been implemented but had been at a rate of 200 percent.
I moved on to teenage pregnancy prevention issue. This conversation started with me prefacing that, although we are probably on opposite sides of the reproductive rights issue, this might be an issue where we have some common ground. He responded that if I believed in partial birth abortion which equals murdering babies, then we most certainly were on opposite sides.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who said anything about “partial birth abortion”?
I told him that I understand why pro-choice activists don’t agree to any erosion of abortion rights fearing it led to the elimination of ALL abortion rights, but that my personal convictions around reproductive rights led my advocacy for legal, accessible first trimester abortion that was subject to no further regulation than any medical procedure would be. Collins actually agreed. I was so surprised that I repeated, “So you agree that abortion in the first trimester should be legal and accessible?”, and he replied, “yes.”
This was such a shocker to me that a Republican congressman was expressing support for abortion rights, any abortion rights, that I just said something along the lines of not expecting that to be an area of common ground, but still glad that we had identified at least the one! I then pivoted to the teenage pregnancy prevention funding, and his first response was that it was an HHS issue, so it wasn’t in his purview to fix, although he agreed it was a worthwhile endeavor to support. I responded that it was my expectation that as a congressman it was in his purview to advocate for his constituents and lobby the executive branch for restoration of the funding. He agreed, and asked me to send him a list of providers in the 27th who were recipients of the funding. I thanked him sincerely, and commented again that it was great that there were things we agreed on.
So, that exchange was actually—on its face—somewhat productive. Collins agreed that first trimester abortion should remain safe and legal, and agreed to look into reinstating teenage pregnancy prevention program funding through HHS.
Heartened by this initial success but knowing that time was running out on the meeting, I said that I next wanted to talk about Charlottesville and the tenor of political discourse since the election. BOOM: the affect that was cold and resentful turned to outright hostile and demeaning. The next ten minutes felt like some kind of crazy fever dream, and Collins did almost all of the talking, getting increasingly heated as he did so. It was just so clear that I became a target for all of his frustration and anger over the billboards and the protests and the letters to the editor. There were A LOT of things said, so for brevity’s sake I need to dispense with the narrative and just share some bullet points:
Regardless of your political persuasion, there is no doubt that political discourse has been dismal. There are certainly culprits on both sides (Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor stand out as rhetorical bullshitters, and the so-called “antifa” paramilitary-without-portfolio does no Trump opponent any favors), but the president of the United States has revealed himself to be the troll-in-chief, seemingly existing to do whatever is best guaranteed to piss off liberals. That seems to be the sum total of Trumpism. But Charlottesville—that was the work-product of only one side.
What happened in Charlottesville was quite simple: The “Unite the Right” rally was an effort to bring together Trumpist trolls, the Klan, various and sundry Nazi wannabes, and other white nationalist/identitarian groups. There was a very thinly veiled pretext at play: to oppose any effort to remove a statue to Robert E. Lee or to rename the plaza where it sits. But really what it amounted to was an orgy of hatred and violence fueled by ignorant, phony white resentment.
Confederate monuments and statues exist to commemorate acts of high treason and white supremacist chattel slavery. If you doubt this, go and read the constitution of the Confederacy, especially Article IV and Article I § 9. Then go and read the “Cornerstone Speech” that the CSA’s first and only vice president, Alexander Stephens, gave in 1861: ”Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Back to Sutton’s meeting with Collins, who seemed triggered by mention of Charlottesville.
- He stated that he is against white supremacists and the KKK, but supported First Amendment rights.
This is all fine, but note the invocation of the First Amendment. We’ll come back to it.
- Collins repeatedly referenced the protests against himself and the president. He said that “you guys haven’t stopped marching around with your signs since the election.” I replied that we were exercising our First Amendment rights and that I was among those protesting his agenda and carrying signs. He replied, “yeah, you and your sign filled with lies.”
What about First Amendment rights? “Marching around” with political “signs” is among the most strongly protected types of speech in existence. It doesn’t matter whether he thinks the signs contain “lies”. All the more reason, frankly, for this representative of the people to meet with people and listen to them—especially the ones with whom he has disagreements.
- He said that “you guys and your protests” are the reason why he now has cameras outside all of his offices. He also accused us of drawing chalk outlines on the sidewalk outside his house in efforts to threaten and intimidate him, so I was a hypocrite for wanting civility in our political discourse.
Chris Collins is opposed to Obamacare, voted for Trumpcare, and is opposed to universal health coverage. People die from lack of care—or the inability to pay for it. Maybe he could listen to people who, unlike him, are not millionaires and have issues with the affordability of not just healthcare but health insurance. Chris Collins has offered exactly zero reasonable alternatives to Obamacare in order to expand affordable health insurance to more Americans. All he’s done is vote to repeal Obamacare dozens of times, only to fail miserably to actually repeal it when actually given the chance. To call that failure is an insult to failure.
- He said that the ethics accusations were lies and fake news perpetuated by “you guys.”
Weird, that. The Buffalo News reports that the ethics investigation has taken a “more serious” turn just this week. The Office of Congressional Ethics referred the matter of Collins’s stock trades in an Australian penny stock to the House Committee on Ethics. I guess it’s more than just “fake news”.
- He said that the press attacked him for calling Sheldon Silver the antichrist and evil, and that he didn’t even know Silver was Jewish. I said that I didn’t think characterizing political opponents that way was helpful and that I expected my elected officials to model better behavior than that.
My goodness, Collins’s run-in with Sheldon Silver was years ago. Interesting he’d bring that up, unprovoked, within this context. Sutton is exactly right that maybe politicians referring to other politicians as evil devils isn’t productive. Or…
- He said that I was a hypocrite who voted for “that lying, cheating scumbag Hillary Clinton.” I responded to him that invective like that was unnecessary and harmful, and belied his interest in unifying Americans.
I would have asked Collins how he reconciles his opposition to “lying, cheating scumbags” with his full and deep-throated support for Donald Trump.
The last thing I said to him was, after trying to make the case for being more accessible to all his constituents, “How can you really represent me if you won’t listen to me?”
Here’s the kicker:
His response was delivered with utter contempt (and this is verbatim), “I represent the 72% of people who voted for me. You didn’t vote for me.”
First of all, Chris Collins earned only 67 percent of the vote in 2016; not 72 percent. I mean, when you win by two thirds, what’s with the compulsion to inflate?
Secondly, there are 477,200 registered voters in NY-27. Collins received 220,885 votes. That amounts to 46 percent of eligible, registered voters. According to Collins’s own logic and math, he truly only represents the 46 percent of eligible voters who bothered to turn out and vote for him. This means that fully 54 percent of the eligible voters in NY-27 are unrepresented. Not only that, but the total population is 713,175. So, if Collins only represents the people who voted for him, it stands to reason that only 30 percent of the residents in NY-27 enjoy Congressional representation. Does this mean he only gets paid 30 percent of his Congressional salary? Or that he is entitled only to 30 percent of the federal health, pension, and other fringe benefits he might otherwise receive?
For Collins to tell a constituent that he doesn’t represent anyone who didn’t vote for him is indicative of two things: 1. He is unfit to serve anyone; and 2. He is an arrogant personage whose continued involvement in WNY politics soils all of us.
Immediately after that utterance, his one aide popped into the room and said that he needed to leave the meeting. Collins got up from the table, and walked out of the room without a backward glance. No hand shake, no thank you. His other aide asked if I would be following up with the list of providers receiving the teenage pregnancy prevention funding. I was still so stunned that I couldn’t do any more than look up and nod at him. He left the room, and I stayed to jot down some quick notes and quotes I didn’t want to forget, and then I biked home … As soon as I got home, I called Michelle. The first words out of my mouth were, “We are really getting to him.”
“We” being the “Citizens Against Collins” group that has protested Collins at his various offices and raised money to buy billboard space to shame him for his refusal to hold public meetings.
Before the meeting, I was really excited to have this opportunity to just exchange some ideas and possibly find some common ground with Collins. I truly believed that we were just two Americans who love our country but who have different ideas about how to solve problems, and that his bluster and invective against folks more liberal than he were more for the benefit of the cameras and his base. At best, I hoped that my friendly demeanor and respectful, reasonable arguments would telegraph to him that I saw his humanity and that, in turn, he would see mine. I really thought, on the basis of our shared American values, I could convince him that our resistance represents political engagement that benefits our Republic and was worthy of his applause, not his condemnation. At worst, I thought it would be a meaningless half hour in which my concerns would be answered with measured political doublespeak and condescending civility. Instead, my congressman told me that he will not represent me because I didn’t vote for him. My congressman called me a liar and hypocrite who voted for a scumbag. Never in a million years did I think I would be treated with the insulting hostility and contempt that I experienced. I wasn’t treated like a human being, much less a constituent. I was treated like an enemy, and it saddens me that that is the state of the nation today.
Welcome to Collins country. “Collins for our Future”—a future of rude, arrogant, entitled multi-millionaires.
As crappy as it felt to be on the receiving end of that much hostility, I am proud of the way I behaved and unapologetic for my idealism. Yes, it is clear to me now that my civility was wasted on Chris Collins, but it wasn’t a waste to me. Chris Collins supports a president and policies that run counter to fundamental American values and that will hurt his constituents and lead to the destruction of our environment. Collins’s behavior and hateful rhetoric yesterday were unprofessional, unbecoming, and incompatible with representative democracy. For those reasons I will work hard to ensure his defeat in 2018 and 45’s in 2020. But I will do so modeling the behavior and rhetoric I want to see from others, eschewing hateful and divisive speech and personal attacks. I hope you all will join me. To the fair-minded people we hope to convince, our integrity and decency will be as powerful a source of persuasion as our reasoned arguments. And when we win, we will have the satisfaction of knowing we did it in the sunshine, and not the gutter.
The Public reached out to Collins’s office Monday morning. Sutton’s version of events was copied and pasted, and these three questions asked:
1. Is Sutton’s account of the meeting substantially accurate?
2. If there are inaccuracies, can you please identify them and offer the Congressman’s account?
3. Can the Congressman please explain or elaborate on this statement, which Sutton says she is quoting verbatim: “I represent the 72% of people who voted for me. You didn’t vote for me.”
Neither Collins nor anyone from his office responded.