The progressive protest movement that has confronted federal lawmakers from around the country swept into Western New York on Saturday, as Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, encountered hundreds of protesters and loud voices everywhere he went during four town hall meetings in the western Southern Tier.
Standing outside a senior center in Ashville, in a veterans hall in Cherry Creek, in a firehouse in Great Valley and outside the Allen Town Hall in Fillmore, Reed heard the same message again and again from crowds that often seemed to not want to hear him:
Don't repeal and replace Obamacare.
Preserve Medicare and Social Security
Investigate President Trump and his ties to Russia.
And: "Do your job."
Reed remained nonplussed and pleasant throughout, offering detailed answers to questions when the crowds would let him.
"I think we're going to be able to find some common ground here," he said, while standing in the mud pit that had become of the parking lot outside the Allen Town Hall.
But throughout the day and across Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, common ground proved hard to find.
A tea party of the left?
ASHVILLE – The mood of the day seemed set from the moment Reed's staff moved his 9 a.m. town hall here to the parking lot outside the North Harmony Senior Citizens Center, and from the moment Reed led a crowd of at least 200 in the Pledge of Allegiance.
When the crowd came to the word "indivisible," many shouted it at the top of their lungs - and for a good reason.
"Indivisible" is a new movement organized by former Democratic congressional staffers, aimed at getting progressive voices heard before members of Congress. And Indivisible – which said in a planning memo that it wanted to "trap Reed in appearing as if he doesn't care about his constituents" – appeared to have a strong presence at each of the four town hall meetings.
But it was a grassroots presence. Of more than 15 protesters interviewed across the four town halls, all were from Reed's district, and only one hailed from Tompkins County, the liberal bastion where Indivisible has an especially strong presence.
Bearing signs that said "Hands off my healthcare" and "No repeal!," among others, the crowd seemed to be a tea party of the left.
And just as the conservative tea party came together eight years ago to fight the approval of the Affordable Care Act, the crowds at Saturday's town halls appeared to come together to try to save it.
In Ashville, decorum broke down as Reed described replacing Obamacare with a conservative plan that would include health savings accounts.
"How can the poor get savings accounts? How can the poor get savings accounts?" many members of the crowd replied in unison.
Similarly, as Reed tried to elaborate on the Republican health care plans, another chant broke out.
"We want your health care! We want your health care!" the crowd chanted.
Meantime, others in the crowd – men wearing NRA and Infowars baseball caps, women in parkas who refused to speak to reporters – stood silently by in the chilly sunshine, frowning.
Among them was Mel McGinnis, spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots of the Southern Tier.
"Here it's just a frenzy of anger and rage," said McGinnis, of Frewsberg. "It was not what you want to hear, which is a discussion of the issues."
"Repair, not repeal"
CHERRY CREEK — Reed arrived at the at Pine Valley VFW Post 2522 here with the same tough medicine he had for the crowds throughout the day.
Repeating a Republican mantra, he said he supported repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
"People will die if you do that!" a woman in the crowd shouted.
Another voice cried out to inform Reed that the largest industry contributing to his last campaign was the health insurance industry.
"Does that inform your decision at all?" the woman asked.
Looking surprised, Reed said: "I wasn't even aware of that."
But it was a well-informed crowd, and it went on and on.
Some complained about the cost of prescription drugs and the pharmaceutical industry's influence in Washington. Reed agreed: pressure could be put on Big Pharma to lower prices.
Drug companies shouldn't be allowed to spend billions advertising their products, one man said. Reed patiently disagreed, saying those ubiquitous prescription drug ads leave patients better informed when they visit the doctor.
One man noted that he had a relative with a permanent brain condition who couldn't get health insurance until the Affordable Care Act.
"And you want to take it away!" the man said.
Reed said no, he does not. He wants the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act to require insurers to cover pre-existing conditions.
That prompted shouts and catcalls, like many of Reed's responses.
Sitting in the back and trying to make sense of it all was Harry Hatch, 76, of South Dayton.
"These people were very disruptive; I didn't like it," said Hatch, a Trump supporter who said the din of the crowd was so loud that he turned off his hearing aid.
A life and death issue
GREAT VALLEY – Reed saw a scuffle coming in the back of the crowd. An older man who thought abortion is murder got in the face of a young woman who saw abortion as her constitutional right.
Harsh words were exchanged, and before it got worse, Reed intervened, walking to the back of the Humphrey Fire Department station and defusing the confrontation with his looming presence and the words: "Let's respect each other."
Yet it's clear that some in the crowd of more than 300 here –which spilled into the parking lot outside – wouldn't, in their hearts, do that.
In a rarity for these four events, a conservative got a question in. The old man in a red ball cap built his question around an accusation – that former President Barack Obama was a Muslim and that he exempted Muslims from the onerous requirement that they buy health insurance.
"I disagree with that," Reed said, politely, as the crowd shouted the old man down.
Then when discussion turned back to abortion, and Reed's vote to end funding for Planned Parenthood, the congressman himself was the one shouted down. After a woman told him that families depend on Planned Parenthood for reproductive health services, Reed cited a video – later discredited – that allegedly showed a Planned Parenthood official negotiating the sale of fetal parts.
Then the boos began.
"That's a lie!" one woman shouted.
"You asked for the basis of my vote," Reed replied. "That was the basis of my vote."
Why, then, was Reed anti-abortion, another woman in the crowd asked – prompting the congressman to offer a deeply personal explanation. He was the 12th of 12 children, and before his birth in 1971, his mother's doctor, for medical reasons, recommended that her 12th child be aborted.
"What about my choice?" Reed asked. "What about my voice?"
That prompted an angry young woman to shout out: "You don't have a choice because you weren't breathing yet."
Trump and taxes
FILLMORE –The largest crowd of the day – 500, probably, most standing in mud, some on flatbed trucks – confronted Reed in this cellphone dead zone, but he wasn't the politician most on their mind.
"Dump Trump!" one sign said.
"Treason will out!" said another.
Why, the crowd wanted to know, did Trump not want to see an aggressive investigation into allegations of his Russian ties? Reed said he didn't see enough evidence for an investigation.
"If further evidence shows ..." he said, as the crowd drowned him out.
"Find the evidence!" one man shouted.
"Follow the money!" screamed another.
Meantime, a woman in the audience asked Reed why he voted, in committee, against a measure that would have required Trump to release his tax returns.
Reed replied that it would be a "bad precedent" for the government to publicly force the release of a private tax return, but that's not what the crowd wanted to hear.
"He's a public official!" one man shouted.
Through it all, two men with Trump-Pence signs stood far the Reed's left, wordless and watching.
More typical of the people in the crowd was Joanne Allen of Wellsville. In her words "not yet 90," she stood in the mud and watched the protesters approvingly.
"This county voted for Trump," she said, incredulous. "But now, all of a sudden, we finally woke up."