WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
It was like MSNBC's more liberal narrative and Fox New's right wing thought line were two mighty express freight trains headed for each other on the same track driven by engineers with not much left to live for.
It was Freshman Republican Congressman Michael Grimm's first town hall meeting of his career in Brooklyn, certainly the most Democratic portion of his district that is dominated by Staten Island. During his campaign, he'd said the Brooklyn piece of the 13th Congressional District had been perpetually underserved. So he picked Brooklyn for his maiden voyage.
A feisty crowd of about 100—mostly seniors—came at Grimm with roller derby ferocity for his support of fellow Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's budget austerity plan that included changes to Medicare for future retirees.
To his credit, as outright hostile as most members of the audience were, Grimm—a former FBI agent—skillfully maintained control of the near chaotic scene while occassionally taunting the more partisan attendees. Despite a cacophony of jeers and anti-GOP one liners, Grimm held his ground.
"I am not going to be disrespected and I won't allow anyone else to be disrespected. It's not appropriate," he said.
While audience members frequently bolted out of their seats in a spontaneous rage to hammer their rookie rep, they never actually menaced Grimm. Rather, the banter devolved into something out of the movie Moonstruck, with hostile familial banter, adding up to a perverse sort of love in the air. They hated him, he knew they hated him, but he addressed them anyway.
"So what's driving our debt?"" Grimm asks with almost the earnestness of a high school civics teacher.
A woman yells out, "Tax cuts for the wealthy!"
"Ryan's plan will add $6 trillion dollars according to the CBO to the national debt!" volunteered audience member Peggy Devane.
"I think it will cut $6.2 trillion," countered Grimm.
"Here is a number I did memorize: 68 cents of every dollar that we spend on our medical entitlements is borrowed," said Grimm. "Is that healthy for any economy?"
"That's a lie, Congessman," scolds a senior citizen.
"It was because of Bush," blasts another.
That line of heckling clearly energized Grimm. He took President Obama and the Democrats who were in control of both the House and Senate to task for failing to enact a budget last year. He says they failed to start the heavy lifting needed for entitlement reform when they controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
This sends some audience members over the edge. "It was Bush! It was Bush!" some yell back.
"I want the press to document this, that the Democratic House and the Democratic Senate and the President, who is a Democrat the last time I checked and his name was President Barack Obama not President George Bush, didn't pass a budget or any plan to stop our debt crisis because of George Bush!"
Grimm laid out his central thesis:
"People are living twenty and twenty five years longer than we anticipated, which is a great thing. But the equations and formulas that were created when these entitlement plans were created did not account for baby boomers and did not account for the fact we would live longer. Common sense says we've got to adjust."
Another woman yells out, "Adjust, don't kill."
Several others yell, "Raise taxes on the rich."
"I am here to tell you that we have a looming debt crisis that is going to destroy this country," says Grimm. "Why do I believe that? $14.3 trillion is a number you just can't get out of your head. When you think about Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security increasing at the rates they are increasing, if we don't do something we will go bankrupt and increasing taxes is not enough."
That rhetorical flourish won him a smattering of applause. He was not going to win any votes, but he was not going to lose control of the room nor need a police escort.
And on at least one occasion, the fast-on-his-feet freshman got a loud round of applause. At one point the angry crowd yelled out the names of programs and organizations they felt the GOP had unfairly targeted. "What about NPR?! What about Planned Parenthood?!"
Grimm claimed opposing Planned Parenthood was akin to his stand of opposing abortion.
"And I don't think we should be funding abortions and I don't apologize. So hate me, don't vote for me, scream, jump up and down. I don't care. I will not support abortion, period. That's it."
The Grimm faction of the audience, who had been pretty much eclipsed and stunned up until than, gave their guy a sustained ovation. And they were joined by a number of the Reagan Democrats who just minutes before had been jeering Grimm over Ryan's plan.
There was consensus that America was deeply in debt and something needed to be done. The red hot divisive question was how the nation got here and how should its multi-trillion dollar debt burden be apportioned going forward. And just a handful of the most partisan Republicans bought Grimm's assertion that cutting taxes for the wealthy was the pathway for national prosperity.
Most of the crowd wanted the nation's wealthiest households and large corporations to pay more for the nation's entitlements for the poor and middle class—to be preserved with some possible reforms, but in the main protected.
During the town hall retired postal worker Kevin McTague had won cheers from the crowd when he recalled President Bush's and the Republican Party's expansion of senior drug coverage that McTague said was not paid for. He reminded that similarly the wars in Iraq and Afgahanistan were run off budget. "That's two trillion right there!"
Afterward McTague said the nation could not look just at the debt in isolation of what he sees as a systemic imbalance between the growing concentration of wealth and continued tax cuts for that same income cohort.
"The gentleman at the back of the room said the corporate tax rate is 35 percent and that's absolutely right that is the corporate tax rate," said McTague. "The effective amount corporations pay is 4 percent. So imagine going to a restaurant and the waiter brings you to the table and says if you sit at this table it's a thousand dollars. But don't worry, you'll pay only $75. That's what is happening here. People are not paying what we think they are."
Throughout the night Peggy Devane had been one of the most aggressive questioners. "I think most of the people here did not buy what he was selling," said Devane about Grimm. "He didn't listen to people. He said yes, yes. He followed his script and he is a Republican and it is what he thinks."
"The Congressman put himself out there for everyone," said Andrew Windsor, who brought his son. He wouldn't say if he voted for Grimm but he liked what he heard from the Congressman. "The less government and less taxes creates individual liberties and a greater lifestyle. That's the reason we are who we are today, and other countires are looking to us for that. And I am afraid we are going to lose that if we don't make some changes."
In an impromptu press avail Grimm was clearly energized by the ordeal. He said he was proud to be part of the Republican Party because it had sparked what he says is an essential debate over the nation's future and entitlements. "At the minimum you have to give the Republicans credit for being bold enough and having the political courage to put something on the table.
"The woman that was most outspoken gave me a hug and thanked me for my service," said Grimm. "That's what we should come away with here. Out of this town hall, although we disagreed on almost everything, everyone at the end was respectful. Some gave me a handshake, some gave me a hug, some gave me a kiss. Some said, 'I got to work on you. I can make you a good Congressman.'"
All and all it was a good night for Brooklyn and America. The crowd at McKinley was "moonstruck." Ideas and passions clashed, but no blood was spilled.