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Tonko Gets Warm Reception At Skidmore Town Hall

Lucas Willard

Capital Region Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko held a town hall meeting last night at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. But unlike his Republican colleagues in the region, who are hearing demands from constituents for face time to ask tough questions, Tonko was greeted by a friendly audience with questions about how he plans to navigate a Washington dominated by the GOP. 

Unlike the scene at many town halls this year around the country, Democrat Paul Tonko was not greeted at Skidmore by protesters outside nor did he face particularly tough questions.

The private liberal arts college was welcoming to the Democrat, a familiar face in the region since before his tenure in Congress began in 2009. Tonko, an Amsterdam native, previously served in the state Assembly for 20 years.

But Tonko said he continues to hold town halls to have his thinking challenged and shaped in an era of social media and smartphones.

“It’s to resort to that technology to perhaps reinforce our thinking. We can pick our audience. But when we come together as a neighborhood we then get, perhaps, our thinking stretched, somewhat fine-tuned, perhaps totally turned around, and so I think it’s a great opportunity for us to facilitate such a discussion here this evening,” said Tonko.

Just a few years ago, Tonko faced tough questions at town halls for his support for the Affordable Care Act. Seven years into that law, with Republicans seeking a repeal, the attitude toward healthcare at this meeting was different.

It came up in the first question, a two-parter about how he’d work to support research and tools to fight Lyme disease and his stance on a single-payer model.

Tonko touted his work with former Republican colleague Chris Gibson of the 19th District, a seat now occupied by Rep. John Faso, in supporting the 21st Century Cures Act, signed by President Obama last December.

Tonko has been a cheerleader for the ACA but said he was an early supporter of a single-payer system and still is, noting that a private-sector model was based on Republican consensus.

“And so sometimes I really scratch my head when I say ‘well, the people who started this debate to have private-sector industry modeling got what they wanted, in part, and now they’re opposing it,’” said Tonko.

Tonko was asked his thoughts on the actions by the Trump administration, including strikes in Syria and the dropping of the MOAB in Afghanistan.  

The Democrat knocked the White House for lacking a clear vision on what it hopes to achieve in foreign policy. He said he finds it difficult to even know where to begin to negotiate with the administration.

“There has to be the soulfulness here that is defining where you want to take the nation on healthcare, immigration reform, infrastructure, tax reform. Without that definition it’s like pushing against Jello,” he said.

Tonko said he shakes his head at the changed environment in Washington regarding science and climate change. He says he noticed a change in discourse even in the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, of which he is a member

As past-president of NYSERDA and an engineer by trade, Tonko said Democrats and Republicans need to work together to advance the local and national economy through STEM education, engineering and research investment to win a global race. 

“So we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and saying ‘fight amongst yourselves, have your tug of war, nobody wins.’ No, it’s gotta be a better outcome with that. And I will do my best to work on the relationships,” said Tonko.

The town hall went well-over the 8 p.m. time limit, but he lingered in the lobby for another hour or so shaking hands and chatting with constituents. 

To view a webstream of the town hall click here

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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