On Monday evening, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer was scheduled to host a town-hall meeting at his reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE), a historic building on a tree-lined Brooklyn block. Ever since Donald Trump’s election, Schumer has faced growing anger from progressive Democrats infuriated by his stated willingness to work with a man they consider unfit for public office. A local group had been working for nearly a year to convince Schumer to answer questions from constituents in person.
Organizers were expecting more than 1,200 people to show up; a full 90 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, the hall was about a sixth full. In the crowd was Arlene Geiger, a New Yorker since 1969, who came wearing a T-shirt with giant block letters saying, “LEAD the Dems on SCOTUS.” She told me she worked as the coordinator of the Upper West Side Move On/Indivisible action group, a progressive coalition.
What did she think of Schumer’s July 2 op-ed warning readers what was at stake in light of Justice Kennedy’s retirement and the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy? “Schumer not voting to confirm Trump’s nominee is no great accomplishment,” Geiger said. “That’s a no-brainer. We don’t need him to just vote ‘no,’ we need him to make sure all the Dems vote no.”
At 5:03 pm, everyone who registered for the event online received an e-mail message. “We sincerely regret to inform you that—due to mechanical issues that have grounded his plane in upstate New York—Senator Schumer is unable to make it to New York City and must CANCEL tonight’s town hall meeting,” it read. But people were still arriving. And as word began to filter through the assembly that the senator was a no-show—and had offered to host a “tele–town hall” in the same time slot instead—an angry buzz filled the room.
“He should get off his ass,” crowed a man with a thick New York accent who asked to be identified only as Vincent. “I don’t believe he has mechanical difficulties; I think he doesn’t have the balls to show up and face us.” (“Can you write ‘testicular fortitude’ instead of ‘balls’?” Vincent later asked.)
“The man is either a coward or he’s incompetent,” another man complained.
“Does he want to do this? Does he want to be Joe Crowley [the 10-term congressman recently defeated by newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]? He can’t show up in his own district, his own synagogue?” asked Miriam Clark, a longtime constituent of Schumer’s.
Another woman speculated that the senator had offered a tele–town hall in lieu of an in-person event “because they don’t want us to be congregated.”
“This is not acceptable; you can’t literally phone it in,” fumed Liat Olenick, a young woman from the nonprofit advocacy group Indivisible Nation BK who led the effort to get Schumer to commit to an in-person town-hall meeting in the first place.
An older white man in a Hawaiian shirt and an eyepatch began angrily berating a young black man named Garrett. Garrett, a Schumer staffer who did not provide his last name and whom Schumer’s office would not immediately identify, was tasked with breaking the news that his boss was a no-show. He looked positively miserable.
Schumer’s staff, said the man with the eyepatch, never should have sent their boss upstate when they knew he had a town-hall meeting to attend later that day in Brooklyn. Also, a tele–
town hall is a poor substitute for the real thing.
“There’s no Internet in here,” complained the man with the eyepatch.
“You don’t need the Internet to join the tele–town hall,” said Garrett. “You can call in on your phone.”
“I’m deaf,” countered the guy with the eyepatch.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Garrett responded, sweating in his suit in the 90-degree heat. There was no air-conditioning in the sanctuary building.
When Garrett explained to another man that he had no way of arranging for the tele–town hall to be broadcast from the synagogue so that everyone could participate simultaneously, the man snapped at him. “We’ll take over from here, thanks,” he said. “Because you people are useless.”
Then, as if by magic, one of the women from Indivisible produced a cardboard cutout of Schumer and placed it on the bimah, the podium in a synagogue from which the Torah is read. People gathered around, snapping cell-phone pictures of the women posing with Cardboard Chuck. One woman whispered to another, “We’ve got to get Chuck off of there; the CBE folks aren’t comfortable with photos being taken of him on the bimah.” After a minor scuffle, Cardboard Chuck was moved in front of the bimah.
Olenick stood up and introduced herself. “We have some messages for Chuck Schumer, so we are going to deliver those messages,” she announced, to cheers and applause. “We are going to commandeer this town hall.”
She gestured angrily at Cardboard Chuck. “With everything that’s happening in this country, we need people to show up and we need to hear from Chuck Schumer in person. Our first demand is that he needs to reschedule this town hall immediately. Almost a full year’s worth of work went into getting him to hold this town hall in the first place. We are not going to let him phone this in.”
The crowd roared, and Olenick led them in several chants: “Reschedule, Chuck!” and “Don’t phone it in!”
A young Hispanic man introduced as Angel from National Indivisible got up to speak next. “New York is one of the strongest places in the country,” he said. “The most important thing your senator needs to be is responsible for you and your needs. What was not written in Schumer’s New York Times op-ed was whether or not he’s willing to whip on this vote…. He did not whip the vote on [CIA director] Gina Haspel, someone who tortured people.”
Angel led another chant: “Whip the vote! Whip the vote!”
Schumer’s no-show was turning into a rally.
A black woman named Sherese Jackson rose. She was with Indivisible Nation BK. “As the leader of the Democrats,” she said, addressing Cardboard Chuck, “Explain why you aren’t doing more to support women, particularly black women, who are running for or in Congress. We are the backbone of the Democratic Party and we have been instrumental in winning districts in Alabama, Virginia…. Ninety-four percent of us voted for Hillary Clinton. How are you mobilizing and reaching out to Democratic voters? Will you commit to fundraising and supporting non-establishment women in their upcoming elections?”
Jackson, too, was met with cheers and applause.
Then a young woman with curly hair stood up.
“I’m Claire Nuchtern,” she said, “I’m Jewish, and we are in a Jewish space. I know that you, Chuck Schumer, are also proud of your Jewish values. Tell me, how does the imprisonment of Palestinian children in Israel and Central American children in the United States meet your Jewish values? To be clear, your silence is not civil.”
The applause for Nuchtern was deafening.
Sonni Mun, an activist with Moms Demand Action, a pro–gun control group, introduced herself next. “What are we going to do to get action on guns?” she asked in an anguished tone. “They are winning the publicity wars. We are losing the message war. I don’t want to see Trump supporters on every talk show. I want to see progressives and liberals flood the airwaves. His policies do not support average Americans. If he is becoming more popular, it’s not because he’s doing a better job, it’s because of publicity.”
“Moms Demand Chuck Schumer!” the Moms Demand Action women hollered.
Gradually, the impromptu rally dispersed. Most people went home or to a coffeeshop to dial into Schumer’s tele–town hall. After a lengthy, anodyne introduction from New York City Council member Brad Lander, Schumer spent half the call telling the story of how he got into politics. It involved: mediocre basketball skills, perfect SAT scores, and the fact that he went to Harvard.
“We can’t always change Trump’s policies,” said Schumer at one point, failing to read the tele-room, not least because he couldn’t actually see any of the tele-townspeople, “but we can shine a light on them.”
“We’re on the same team; we have the same goals,” he pleaded as his virtual town-hall meeting—marked by questions like, to paraphrase, “How can you be such a hypocrite?” and “Why are you such a coward compared to Mitch McConnell?”—limped to a painful close.
In the coming days, Schumer’s “team” will flood his office with angry phone calls. And yet again, they will demand that he appear in Brooklyn to face their wrath in person.