WASHINGTON – Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand is set to hold a town hall meeting with constituents at the Buffalo Irish Center Wednesday afternoon, and that's nothing unusual for her – or for Rep. Tom Reed. They both have held regular freewheeling meetings with constituents for years.
But holding town hall meetings is plenty unusual for other local members of Congress.
Rep. Brian Higgins holds open, but smaller "Congress on Your Corner" events where he meets with constituents – but in the wake of the chaos that erupted at congressional town halls nationwide during the Tea Party frenzy of a decade ago, he won't call them town halls.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who frequently travels to the area for everything from press conferences to Taste of Buffalo events, rarely holds town hall meetings anywhere.
For Gillibrand, though, these freewheeling public events constitute an essential part of her job as a senator.
"I think town halls are really vital to hearing directly from your constituents about their concerns, and what they would like their representatives to work on," said Gillibrand, a New York Democrat whose town hall on Wednesday will be her third in Buffalo in three years.
Not surprisingly, Gillibrand is a bit behind her usual pace in holding town halls. She waged an unsuccessful race for the Democratic presidential race between January and August, and as a result, her town halls in Rochester and Buffalo Wednesday are her first of the year. In contrast, she hosted seven such events across the state in 2017 and nine last year.
But Gillibrand has dramatically ramped up her in-state activity this fall. She toured military bases across the state on Monday, has taken part in a host of other in-state events and resumed regular conference calls with press from around the state.
"I never took my eye off the ball in representing the state." Gillibrand said Tuesday.
Noting that she passed two major pieces of legislation while on the campaign trail, she said she also said her national campaign taught her about issues – such as the challenges facing disabled and mentally ill people – that she can now focus on the Senate and at roundtable discussions and other events back home.
"I really feel very blessed by the opportunity" to run for president, she said. "I felt I learned a lot. And now I can apply all of that in my job in the U.S. Senate."
Gillibrand doesn't hold town hall meetings nearly as often as Reed, a Corning Republican who has held 260 such gatherings across his sprawling Southern Tier district during his nine years in Congress.
“To represent people, you have to listen to people," said Reed, adding that he tries to be one of the most accessible members of Congress. "While we may not agree on every subject during these meetings, we do have honest and passionate exchanges concerning the issues facing the people we care about and represent – and we always look for common ground on where we can agree.”
Such exchanges between lawmakers and their constituents grew particularly heated shortly after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. With the economy in a tailspin and the new president pushing for an overhaul of the American health care system, angry voters flooded into congressional town hall meetings to complain. Confrontation after confrontation filled the evening news.
That's why Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, and his staffers decided that town halls had gotten a bad name. Now Higgins schedules smaller-scale "Congress on Your Corner" events in his densely urban district, which allow him to talk to constituents in a more intimate and less potentially confrontational format.
Higgins said he takes all questions at those events, which sometimes run for two hours or more. He also has staff present to handle individual constituent concerns.
"I really don't see a big distinction between what we call them and what others call was a town hall meeting," he said.
Higgins has attended at least nine of his office's "Congress on Your Corner" events or similar gatherings since February 2017, although his office conducts other such events without his presence, focusing instead on constituent casework instead of national issues.
Meanwhile, Higgins is a regular presence at other events around his district.
As for Schumer, a New York Democrat, he visits Buffalo pretty much on a monthly basis. And to hear his staff tell it, he's in such close contact with the local community that it's as if he doesn't really need to hold town halls.
“Sen. Schumer is a very accessible and committed advocate for Western New York who has visited the region (and all of the state’s 62 counties) more than any elected statewide elected representative in history," said Allison Biasotti, Schumer's spokeswoman. "In his hundreds of visits to the region – from disaster response to meetings on economic development opportunities to street festivals to graduations – he regularly hears from and meets with constituents from every corner of the region.”
Interestingly, Schumer's apparent aversion to town halls has never drawn the kind of opposition that former Rep. Chris Collins faced from constituents – including a group called Citizens Against Collins that ran a billboard campaign urging him to meet with the public in 2017.
Collins was unimpressed.
“I have never seen the value of the time commitment for a town hall when in fact I can spend my time with a group of dairy farmers, with a group of health care professionals, for a half hour or an hour and have a real give and take,” Collins said on CNN in March 2017.
Residents of New York's 27th Congressional District now face an issue for bigger than a congressman who won't hold town meetings. Voters there now don't have a congressman at all, given that Collins, a Republican who used to live in Clarence, last week resigned on the same day he pleaded guilty to two felony insider trading charges.