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Schumer Misses Town Hall in Brooklyn, but Still Feels the Heat

NEW YORK — It was to have been Sen. Chuck Schumer’s first town-hall meeting of 2018, a Democratic gut check in his home neighborhood of Brooklyn, at his own synagogue.

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Schumer Misses Town Hall in Brooklyn, but Still Feels the Heat
Shane Goldmacher
, New York Times

NEW YORK — It was to have been Sen. Chuck Schumer’s first town-hall meeting of 2018, a Democratic gut check in his home neighborhood of Brooklyn, at his own synagogue.

It was not to be, exactly.

Airplane woes grounded Schumer, Democrat of New York, 250 miles away in Utica, New York, forcing the senator to hold a telephone-style town hall instead. Restive Democratic activists were not happy; they poured out of a sweltering synagogue (there was no air-conditioning on a steamy summer evening) onto the streets of Park Slope, frazzled by the heat.

But more distressing was the specter of President Donald Trump’s impending Supreme Court pick, and their own inability to confront their Democratic leader in person about his plans to obstruct the nominee.

“We brought this just in case,” said Teresa Mayer, an activist with Indivisible Nation BK, who was holding a cardboard cutout of Schumer. Activists posed for pictures with it, many giving the thumbs-down sign and other signals of displeasure.

“People don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mayer said. “He’s supposed to be the leader of the party.”

Word spread of Schumer’s travel issues not long before doors were to have opened. When the telephone town hall began, some stood on the street and listened, at least at the start, in an odd scene that had Schumer’s gravelly voice being projected into the muggy air through synchronized cellphone speakers.

“I’m really sorry this event is happening under different circumstances than we planned,” said Schumer, who explained that he was grounded by fuel pump woes on the propeller plane he uses to travel the state, as he visits every county annually.

Liat Olenick, founder of Indivisible Nation BK, an anti-extremism group, said the phone call was not enough, and called for the event to be rescheduled. Activists had lobbied for months for an in-person town-hall meeting. “The town hall is all about public accountability,” she said. “When you phone it in, there’s no real accountability.”

Still, on the phone, Schumer got an earful of the anger, unease and raw emotions rippling through the party he helps lead.

Magda Aboulfadl said she had made the trip all the way from the North Bronx and it had taken her 90 minutes — one way. She had never been to a town hall before. She came, she said, because she feels “so helpless and paralyzed even to voice my resistance.”

Schumer spoke of the dangers facing the country and democracy with strong words — “We need to fight Donald Trump all the way, in every way,” he said — but in an even-keeled tone that his constituent callers did not share.

“We are in a gunfight and we have a butter knife,” one said. Another likened the situation to a basketball game where Republicans were “slitting throats” on the court while Democrats were working on their bounce passes. There were calls for civil disobedience and concerns about America slipping toward dictatorship.

Multiple people at the synagogue and on the call expressed frustration that Schumer had rebuked Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for her call to harass Trump administration officials in public places.

“This rhetoric of civility is rhetoric that doesn’t enable the Democratic Party to unite and fight and have a solid stance against white supremacy,” said Jess Applebaum, who left work early in Manhattan to come to the town hall that was not.

Much of the discussion on the call was about the Supreme Court vacancy following Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement. Schumer outlined a strategy he had put forth in a New York Times Op-Ed to focus on the threat of overturning abortion protections in Roe v. Wade and portions of the landmark health care bill signed into law in 2010, such as for those with pre-existing medical conditions.

He urged Democrats to focus on substance over senatorial procedure, saying health care and abortion rights had “the broadest and widest support from one end of America to the other.”

“Whip the vote! Whip the vote!” had come the chant inside the synagogue earlier, demanding that Schumer pressure every Democrat to commit to vote against whomever Trump nominates.

Schumer declined to say whether he would do so more than once on the call. Instead, he said he would focus on winning over two Republicans to the Democratic side, noting his party would lose the confirmation vote even if all 49 Democrats in the Senate remained united.

“I like to win,” he said.

By the time the hourlong call was wrapping up, the streets of Park Slope outside the synagogue were mostly empty. Schumer tried, gently, to tell his neighbors that the national Democratic coalition looks very different from what it does in this liberal enclave in a liberal city.

“Brooklyn, New York, is not the center of the country,” Schumer reminded everyone.

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