You would have thought they were his people. The hundreds who packed a congressman’s town hall in Kingston, New York, on Monday night gave him a standing ovation. They waved signs and took photos of him. “Thank you! Thank you!” they chanted. But when the congressman took the microphone a few minutes after 7 p.m., smiling in a crisp suit and tie, he began by acknowledging what everyone knew: that most of the people there weren’t his constituents at all.
“Hey, listen, I have a question for you,” he said. “I’m Representative Sean Patrick Maloney. Where the heck is your congressman?”
Maloney, a Democrat who represents a neighboring New York district, had come to Kingston to shame Representative John Faso, one of the many House Republicans who backed the American Health Care Act last week but are refusing to hold town halls to defend their votes. (Faso’s spokeswoman, Courtney Weaver, told me he had a scheduling conflict on Monday, but it’s clear he isn’t looking for a raincheck.) “If you’re going to change people’s health care, and you’re proud of it, stand up and explain it,” Maloney told the crowd. “I think, if a member of Congress won’t stand up and do that, something is very wrong, ladies and gentleman.”
That’s why Maloney is pitching a new tactic in the fight to save the Affordable Care Act: “adopt a district,” in which Democratic congressmen hold town halls in neighboring, Republican-held districts. “Let’s just imagine for a minute,” he said, “if, in every district in this country where a member of Congress voted for this terrible health care bill [and] they won’t hold a town hall meeting, what if somebody else adopted that district—might be a Democrat!—and went in and did what we’re doing tonight?” he said. “We can adopt a district everywhere, from California to Maine to Florida to Washington State.”
“Adopt a district” may not be sweeping the nation just yet, but it only started taking hold a few days ago, after Maloney announced his plans on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show on Friday. The #adoptadistrict hashtag took off on Twitter that evening, and by Saturday morning Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego was announcing his plans to “adopt” Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, held by Republican Representative Martha McSally (who, on the morning of the AHCA vote, famously said, “Let’s get this fucking thing done!”).
On Monday, Gallego told me it might have previously been considered “rude” or “un-statesmanlike” to go into another representatives district, but these old norms no longer apply in the era of President Donald Trump. “This is a new time in politics, and we’re going to have to use new tactics,” he said. “You’re dealing with a pathological liar as president. You’re dealing with a speaker of the House who will not stand up to the president and defend the authority of Congress. The blatant lies that are coming out of Paul Ryan’s mouth and the Republican Party are just abhorrent.”
Representative Mark Pocan, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said his group has been discussing the “adopt a district” strategy for months. But the GOP House’s passage of the AHCA last week turned the idea into action. Pocan and activist group Forward Kenosha will be holding a town hall in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 1st Congressional District. Pocan, who grew up in Kenosha, says some 20 members of the Progressive Caucus are considering their own “adopt a district” events. “If you had 20 people doing it in 20 districts across the country, that would be national news,” Pocan said. There’s certainly no shortage of districts to target: According to Politico, “only 14 of the 217 House Republicans who voted for the bill last week—less than 7 percent—are listed as holding town halls with their constituents.”
Given the enthusiasm “adopt a district” is generating, you’d think the Democratic Party would be eager to help expand the strategy. But Gallego and Pocan both told me party leadership has been absent from discussions of “adopt a district” tactics. “I don’t know why that is, or where they are, or what’s going on,” Gallego said. “There has not been a satisfactory response.” (Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, told me, “Pelosi supports these efforts and has long encouraged Members to do events in neighboring Republican districts on health care.”) Instead, activist groups are helping to provide organizational support. Indivisible NY19, a local chapter of national anti-Trump activist group Indivisible, sponsored Maloney’s town hall on Monday. “If we played a small part in this ‘adopt a district’ trend, we’re happy to have been a small spark in that,” Dustin Reidy, a spokesman for chapter, told me. “I hope every single Democrat next door to a dead-beat Republican does this. ... I think it’s good to show people what it would be like to have a congressman who cares.”
There are perils to the tactic. Adopt-a-districters are easily cast by Republicans as interlopers. “It is a shame that Representative Gallego is choosing to hold political rallies outside of his district, instead of spending his time serving the constituents in his own congressional district in Phoenix,” McSally spokeswoman Kelly Schibi told the Arizona Daily Star. Gallego pushed back on that charge. “We know the people, and they know us,” he said. He described “adopt a district” as an opportunity for Democrats of all stripes to “galvanize, organize, and stiffen the spine of the resistance.” Gallego, a progressive, noted his ideological differences with the more centrist Maloney, but said, “We come from different parts of the political spectrum, but more importantly we realize the old rules aren’t going to work anymore if we’re going to take back the House and stop repeal of the Affordable Care Act.”
But there are also obvious advantages to “adopt a district,” most importantly the press it generates on multiple levels. On a local level, Pocan said, “I’m more likely to get press when I go to Kenosha, rather than if the local Democratic Party, a group like Forward Kenosha, or the local rotary club were to hold a debate on these issues.” But these events are now drawing national attention, not only from Maddow—and now the New Republic—but also Politico and The Hill. “The fact that Sean is willing to do it,” Pocan said of Maloney, who isn’t a member of the Progressive Caucus, “shows me there’s probably broader recognition that it’s a good idea.”
“It’s making a few people nervous in the corridors of power,” Maloney said during his town hall on Monday, speaking about his “unusual” strategy. “And if at any time the current congressman wants to come here and do his job, well, I will pack up and I will leave. I mean, if he walks in here right now, I will hand him this microphone and I will go home. That’s how it should be. But unless and until he is going to answer these questions, I’m going to be here answering these questions—and he may not like those answers.”
Faso never did walk in, of course. As Maloney wound down the meeting, he said, “Let me know how it’s going with my friend John Faso. I’ll make you a promise: As long as he keeps dodging town hall meetings, I’ll keep coming back.”