MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr., the representative for District 10 in New Jersey, held a “Constituent Conversation” Town Hall meeting in Maplewood on Thursday evening to a standing room only audience of about 300 people.
Outside the Maplewood Municipal building there was an overflow crowd of about 100 people, who Payne addressed before heading inside for the meeting. Multiple people reported that they left after being told the space was at capacity, while others waiting outside were eventually able to come in when people left and space became available.
The theme of the evening, based on the congressman’s responses to dozens of questions and concerns, was to “stay vigilant,” to “keep up the fight,” and to “unite” to have the “voices” of the constituents heard.
The topics covered were wide-reaching and varied, and included the U.S. involvement in Israeli and Palestinian peace talks, federal funding of transgender bathrooms, religious freedom laws, immigration, the Dakota pipeline, and income inequality.
A topic that generated much applause and buzz from the audience was the overall approach of the Democratic Party moving forward, and how they plan to recover from recent losses and to build the party back up to what it once was.
“The Democratic Party has been lousy with strategies these past couple of years,” one woman from Maplewood said after reading off how many positions and seats for Democrats in congress had been lost from 2008 to 2016. She assured the congressman that she was not laying this problem only at his feet. “The Democratic Party has to come up with strategies. What is their strategy?”
Payne stated that the party and its supporters have a lot to do to get to the goal line. “First we have to elect a leader,” he said, referring to the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election which is being held this coming weekend, Feb. 23 to Feb. 27, to determine the next chairperson of the DNC. “The second thing will be to formulate a plan moving forward,” said Payne.
Payne said that discussion is ongoing about where the Democratic Party went wrong in the presidential election, but that they are still optimistic. “We’re in bad shape, but it’s salvageable.”
A similar sentiment was also expressed by another Maplewood resident, “Can we count on the Democrats to put aside their differences and unite?” he asked, citing how they should be as resistant and united as he thought the Republican Party was.
The congressman's response was yes, the Democratic Party will be able to put aside their differences and unite while they also “take a page from the Republican’s book.”
One Maplewood constituent’s concern involved preserving the Affordable Care Act.
“Is there anything you [Congressman Payne] and the Democrats in Congress will do to prevent the ACA’s swift repeal?” the constituent asked.
Payne said that he believed there will not be a swift repeal because the Republicans “have nothing to replace it with. With every regulation you implement, one has to be removed.” He went on to say that he, along with other representatives in the House, proposed to not replace the ACA, but rather, improve it.
Another constituent asked what was on the agenda and what they planned to discuss during the meeting between the president and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Payne is an active member of the CBC.
“The president has a contract on the black community, but not much of a plan,” Payne replied. He went on to say that the CBC has great leadership that will engage and motivate people around the country as well as propose a job program.
One Maplewood resident even candidly asked the congressman, “What can we do to speed up this impeachment process [of President Trump]?” Which garnered applause and laughter from the Town Hall audience.
Payne simply stated that “we’re still working on leadership” and that President Trump’s impeachment “is not too far off” caused by what he believes is a lack of transparency on the part of the Trump Administration. Throughout the evening, the congressman commented on how he was amazed that President Trump hadn’t released his tax forms yet, and that the president was allegedly misleading many Americans on the issue of bringing jobs back to the United States.
“We’re going to have to keep the pressure up. We have to continue to make sure that our Republican counterparts feel the pressure,” the congressman said. He acknowledged that because Democrats are now the minority in both the Senate and the House, progressive legislation will be difficult to pass under the current Republican administration.
Many constituents approached the microphone during the question and answer time to ask the congressman to commit to voting yes or no on a number of bills that will come before the House. He committed to vote ‘NO” against increasing funding to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and to vote ‘NO’ against increasing detention center funds. He also promised to sustain funding for victims of sex trafficking.
Payne encouraged all to keep the pressure up and to continue to oppose Trump administrators such as Scott Pruitt, recently appointed as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Steve Bannon, appointed as assistant to the President and White House chief strategist.
Payne also emphasized the need to oppose the executive orders concerning the halt of travel from seven countries in the Middle East. “On a local level, we have to elect like-minded people into our offices,” he said, and encouraged constituents to “attack the opposition” through resistance.
Payne said he supports a two-state solution concerning Israel and Palestine, supports transgender rights in New Jersey, is against anti-immigration laws, and has a proven voting record against the Dakota pipeline.
In his closing remarks, Payne assured constituents that he “will keep doing to the best of my abilities” as one voice in a group of congress-men and –women, adding, “this is not the end.”
Local officials including Maplewood Mayor Victor De Luca, Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams, Maplewood Township Committee members India Larrier, Frank McGehee, and Greg Lembrich, and Deborah Davis Ford from the South Orange Board of Trustees, joined Payne on the dais.
Also attending the Town Hall meeting were representatives from local political action organizations such as BlueWaveNJ and SOMA Action, which also organized a rally outside Maplewood Town Hall prior to the meeting.