WESA: Progressive Group To Hold Town Hall Thursday, With Or Without Rep. Dom Costa

MAY 30, 2017

A group of constituents is calling on state Rep. Dom Costa (D-Allegheny) to attend a town hall meeting Thursday in Lawrenceville.

The 21st District Progressives have been asking Costa to hold a town hall since March, according to volunteer organizer Tyler Bickford, an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh who lives in Morningside. Bickford said the group received a “firm no” to its requests in early May. He said that response came shortly after 50 constituents signed an open letter to Costa formally asking for a town hall.

Bickford said the group is concerned about Costa’s voting record on issues including immigration, police accountability, abortion and criminal justice.

He pointed to Costa’s affirmative votes on a 20-week abortion ban during the last legislative session and on a bill to withhold the identities of police officers after incidents involving use of force. Bickford said the group is also troubled by Costa’s co-sponsorship of a bill to reintroduce mandatory minimum sentencing in Pennsylvania and a bill to require employers to verify the citizenship status of workers.

“People have been feeling for some time now that Rep. Costa is out of step with the district that is solidly democratic and, we think, pretty progressive,” Bickford said.

Bickford said the group chose this week for the town hall because the state legislature is on recess for the Memorial Day holiday. A staffer at Costa’s Morningside office said the legislator is in Philadelphia through Friday for policy hearings.

Bickford the town hall will be held with or without the congressman.

“If Rep. Costa is not there to answer the questions, I think that’s really too bad,” Bickford said. “I think what he’ll see is there’s a lot of energy and there’s a lot of interest in his district and I think he should – and I think he probably wants to – engage with that.”

Costa appears to have responded to constituent pressure in the past. He pulled his co-sponsorship of a bill to cut off state funding to so-called “sanctuary campuses,” if schools do not cooperate with immigration enforcement officers, though he said that the co-sponsorship was accidental in the first place.

But Casa San Jose community organizer Monica Ruiz told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettein April that she believed it was a conversation with a small group of advocates that changed Costa’s mind.

“He listened to us. He said, ‘Why is this so bad?’ We gave him some examples and he said, ‘You’re right. You put enough doubt in my mind that I cannot support this,’” Ms. Ruiz said.

Bickford said he has had several meetings with Costa that were “somewhat productive.”

In April, Costa came out against a bill that would cut state funding for sanctuary cities, though during the 2015-16 session he had co-sponsored a bill that would have made sanctuary cities “liable for damages to persons or property as a result of criminal activity by unauthorized aliens.”

“That was based on an enormous amount of constituent effort and activism by community groups,” Bickford said. “There were protests outside of his office multiple times, there were multiple meetings with constituent groups, there were efforts to call his office and write letters.”

During the February congressional recess, national legislators – particularly Republicans – were inundated with calls to hold town hall meetings in their home districts. Often, the crowds were left-leaning and angry, over everything from President Trump’s travel ban to the GOP’s moves to replace and repeal Obamacare.

In Pennsylvania, only a couple of members of congress, including Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Republican Rep. Ryan Costello, have held in-person town halls. Others, such as Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Mike Kelly, have held virtual town halls via conference call.

On the whole, Democrats have faced considerably less pressure than Republicans to meet face to face with constituents, though they have seen some.

“I’m less interested in the idea of Democrats versus Democrats,” Bickford said. “I think a lot of this is more about specific issues.”

Rep. Costa did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Thursday’s town hall will be held at 7pm at 118 52nd St. in Lawrenceville.

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