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Coffee clash! Ridgites respect and rebuke Rep. Donovan at confrontational coffee klatsch

Hot seat: Ridgites took Rep. Dan Donovan to task at his coffee klatsch on Saturday — even as the moderate Republican tried to play to the left-leaning crowd.
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He could have used an extra shot of espresso.

Rep. Dan Donovan (R–Bay Ridge) made his long-awaited debut in Bay Ridge on Saturday when he showed up — about 20 minutes late — to answer constituents’ questions at his “coffee tour” stop at Fort Hamilton High School, finally coming face-to-face with the Brooklyn constituents who have repeatedly criticized the Rock-to-Ridge rep for refusing to cross the Narrows.

In an hour and 40 minutes, Donovan answered half of the 51 questions constituents prepared in what amounted to be his first-ever in-person town hall in Bay Ridge.

There was, as promised, hot coffee on offer, but to many constituents, Donovan came up lukewarm at the Nov. 18 event, where he vacillated between trying to distance himself from his more conservative counterparts in D.C. and leaving many Ridgites thirsty when he dodged their questions, with both tactics seen as part of an effort to play to the left-leaning crowd before next year’s congressional election.

The event came on the heels of the congressman’s Nov. 16 “No” vote on the House Republicans’ controversial tax reform bill, a party-bucking move he made with only 13 of his Republican counterparts. Donovan touted the vote to bolster his bona fides as a moderate Republican — a status he further emphasized by citing his similarly independent-minded vote against the Republican healthcare repeal earlier this year, his bipartisan gun control bill, and his commitment to combatting domestic violence. And in a particularly moderate moment, Donovan replied to a woman who asked when “evil” Planned Parenthood was going to be defunded by citing the fact that only a small percentage of the organization’s work is related to abortion services.

When the crowd booed her, Donovan urged the attendees to let her have her say.

“Thank you for your indulgence,” he told them.

That move, along with opposition to the tax bill did garner respect among even liberal attendees, who repeatedly thanked him for his vote against the tax bill. But he stonewalled when attendees demanded he take a stance on other issues.

When three constituents asked him separately about protecting the principle of net neutrality — which require service providers to treat all internet traffic equally — he dodged the question each time, saying that he had to study the issue before he could offer an opinion.

“I’m just studying this now,” he said to the first question on the topic. “I’m just understanding this.”

A Democratic challenger for Donovan’s seat, Michael DeVito, Jr., showed up to the Ridge event to ask if the incumbent would support the Gun Violence Research Act, which currently has no Republican co-sponsors. But Donovan pled ignorance, saying he didn’t know which House committee the bill was in, and then threw up his hands on the question of how to reduce gun fatalities.

“These thoughts ought to be studied — I don’t know what the solution is,” Donovan replied.

And when Ridgite David Mutton asked the congressman if he wanted “better friends” than President Trump, whom the congressman has characterized as a “personal friend,” Donovan rebuffed the questioner — despite again calling Trump a “friend” later on at the event.

But the most intense moment of opposition came with the last question, when a local asked the rep to defend his June vote to roll back financial regulations instituted by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.

“How could you, in good conscience, vote to allow the banks the freedom to gamble with our investments and savings?” the local asked. “And how dare you vote to weaken financial stability oversights that protect your constituen­ts.”

But the rep dodged the question.

“I’ll have to look at the vote,” he told the seething crowd.

The attendee promptly shot back, ushering in a wave of crowd anger with his reply.

“Do your job!” he said. “Read the literature — stop telling us you will.”

And as the congressman got up to leave, the attendees began chanting at him, “Do your job! Do your job!”

One Ridgite who attended three of the five coffee klatches, including the Ridge one, said that the congressman needs to back up his promises to study the issues if he wants to be taken seriously by his constituents.

“There comes a point when he needs to dig in on these issues,” said Rachel Brody. “If he follows this stuff up, and if he lets us know what he’s doing, that’s great. But so far, I haven’t seen the follow-up.”

Brody organized a peaceful protest of about 30 women who greeted the congressman at two of the five events, including the Ridge one, dressed in costumes inspired by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to rebuke Donovan for his vote to ban most abortions after 20 weeks. Brody said the demonstration was about making Donovan face his female constituents and own up to his voting record.

“You see these women, they’re in these costumes, and it’s become a visual shorthand for women’s rights,” she said. “He’s been great on domestic violence issues, but there are more things than that that he needs to speak up on.”

But Mutton, who asked the question about President Trump, said Donovan’s comportment on Saturday left him more convinced that the beleaguered rep would prefer sipping coffee in silence to actually discussing issues over a cup of joe.

“He seems like a personable chap who doesn’t want to give any answer at all, if it’s at all possible,” he said.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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