On a 90-heading to-100 degree Aug. 28, I sat across a conference table from Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-22, New Hartford, as she tried to convince me that someone at a protest outside of Cavallo’s restaurant had held up a sign depicting her “with a male body part in her mouth.”
“I was in that protest,” I told her. “I took a video panning down the entire crowd. There was no sign like that.”
“I have a photo,” she insisted.
“Show me.” I challenged.
“I’m not going to do that,” she said. According to her, this sign is too vulgar to share even to prove its existence.
I am a passionate and loyal supporter of her opponent Anthony Brindisi, and an equally vocal critic of hers. We met because I asked her on the radio program, “Talk of the Town,” while thousands of people listened.
And yet, she has greeted me warmly and expressed surprise that I wasn’t a contemporary of her 25-year-old son (I’m nearly twice his age) and I wasn’t buying it, but I was briefly charmed.
Then bitter followed the sweet.
“Are you a Westmoreland Village Trustee?” she asked.
“I’m not,” I answered.
“Are you a town councilman? A member of the town board? Do you hold ANY position in your town government?” She began firing off the questions while I almost choked on my water. “Didn’t you run for office?”
“I did, and I lost,” I told her.
“Now I am a newspaper columnist,” I reminded her as I flipped open my notebook. “I have questions for you.”
I came into the meeting with an empty notebook and no agenda. She accused me of taping her. Her office told me not to, so I didn’t. I was offended that she questioned my integrity, and shocked that I left with pages and pages of such remarkable claims that it took me two full weeks to disprove them.
What she told me left me stunned and made me very careful about taking the best notes I could under her watchful eye. I don’t want her to question my integrity again.
“The mayor of Utica won’t let me come into the city without permission,” she declared.
This belies the fact that she recently held a private fund-raiser for her campaign with President Trump at the Hotel Utica.
“Once again Claudia Tenney is misrepresenting the facts,” Mayor Rob Palmieri told me in an email. “When she held a press event at a Utica Fire Station and invited the media I told her that as mayor of and Public Safety Commissioner, I need(ed) to be aware of public events occurring at a fire station or any city facility, as having large numbers of people in these areas could potentially impact public safety in the event of an emergency.”
I urged her to hold public town halls like Anthony Brindisi has done in every county in the district. I described the one I attended where anyone could come in and ask any question they wanted. There was a mix of supporters and detractors. I stood next to a woman who I know is a vocal critic of him and a “No Downtown Hospital” activist.
“I don’t think my role is to do town halls,” she replied adding that we’ve had much more than our share of her time.
“Actually she forgets that she works for us, too,” said Betsy Briggs who has been a Tenney critic. “We have been seriously short-changed.”
“She has a duty as an elected representative to listen to the issues that are most important to constituents,” Sarah Reeske, a co-leader of Indivisible Mohawk Valley said in response. “Town halls, if done correctly, can be an effective way of doing that.”
“My job is not to be shouted at and screamed at,” Tenney said, adding that one of her constituents, Maureen Zupan, wanted to do just that. “She wanted a meeting with only Democrats in the room. She wanted to be able to shout at me.”
“Not true,” Zupan told me when I asked her about it. “We invited her to a meeting of our non-partisan organization Caz Call to Action.”
Caz Call to Action describes itself on Facebook as “a grass roots organization helping our community build a future of economic opportunity and social fairness.”
“We said to her, ‘We will ensure that you will be treated respectfully,’” Zupan emphasized. “She should be willing to listen to us.”
Every Friday afternoon there is a group of people protesting outside her New Hartford office. I have participated in these protests. Sometimes there are a dozen people, sometimes more than 100.
“Why don’t you ever come out and talk to us?,” I asked.
“All last spring (2017) I came out on Fridays,” she answered. “I have met with every single one of those people. Some more than once.”
The Rev. Hart said in response, “She is supposed to represent all of us. Even though we may disagree, we need access to power. We are the people.”
Tenney insisted she’s done more for the people of our district in six months than our previous Representative Richard Hanna did in all six years he was in office.
I was comfortable giving the other people Tenney mentioned mentioned an opportunity to respond — even the mayor of Utica — but I was reluctant to share that comment with a former member of the U.S. Congress. Yet, I felt a journalistic obligation to do so.
Former Rep. Richard Hanna declined to address her specific remarks, but he did share his analysis.
“Claudia is always angry and has made a long career in government all about her. It’s unfortunate and serves no one in this district,” Hanna responded by phone and email.
“Donald Trump is in office and is doing very well and standing up the status quo.” Claudia Tenney insisted.
“Even if they generally support Trump, Conservatives and Republicans should reject her and support a candidate with the desire and capacity to apply critical thinking and respect the obligations that come with being a member of U.S. Congress,” Hanna responded. “We have three separate and equal branches of government to protect our rights and freedom. She has shown she is incapable of doing anything other than supporting this administration and promoting herself. Separation of powers and checks and balance are fundamental to our constitution. Her wholesale abandonment of this obligation is shameful and profound.”
After I left the interview I drove home on the arterial passing ConMed. The flag was at half-mast because of the death of Sen. John McCain. I thought for a moment about all the ugliness and pettiness that had come out of the Oval Office over lowering that flag and the passing of a man who had been a true American hero.
Tenney identifies closely with Trump. I knew that before interviewing her.
Tenney told me that she is “not a monster.”
Ron Klopfanstein is a seventh generation Westmoreland native, president of the Westmoreland Historical Society, a member of the Westmoreland town pool committee, and a 1st degree Westmoreland mason. He teaches English at Utica College and Mohawk Valley Community College. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo