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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Pittsburgh protesters continue to hound Senator Pat Toomey during recess

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2017 at 5:17 PM

  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego was a 1990s children's game show which tasked kids with tracking down the eponymous criminal mastermind. The show and educational computer game series of the same name taught kids about geography.

Today, supporters of Planned Parenthood engaged in a similar search in Pennsylvania. But instead of pursuing Carmen, this search party was for a similarly villianized missing person, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

The local action was one of more than 300 events happening across the country during recess week, a time when legislators return to their districts. Planned Parenthood says that defunding their organization would block millions across the country and more than 90,000 Pennsylvanians from access to basic health care services such as cancer screenings, birth control and other exams.

"We are expecting a lot of the Planned Parenthood attacks to pick up in March," said Planned Parenthood organizer Liz Klie. "Recess is a time when representatives are supposed to hear from their constituents and we want Toomey to know that defunding Planned Parenthood will hurt his constituents."

In Pennsylvania, daylong actions were also held in Harrisburg, Allentown and Philadelphia. Patients and Planned Parenthood supporter entered Toomey's offices every 30 minutes throughout the day to request a meeting with Sen. Toomey. In Pittsburgh, Klie says staffers were sometimes hostile.

"We have been told to 'just give up; Sen. Toomey won the election; just get over it.' But we're not going to give up as long as health care is under attack," Klie said. "They're making decisions in Washington that affect us. This is supposed to a time for them to check in with their constituents."

Toomey's apparent unwillingness to meet with constituents isn't a new development. For months, hundreds of his constituents have been making weekly visits to the senator's office for "Tuesdays with Toomey".
  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
The group was there this week talking about the first amendment. They said that since Toomey wouldn't hold a town hall meeting to meet with those he representatives, they'd hold one of their own. (Toomey held a town hall via telephone last week after giving the public just 90 minutes' notice).

Outside Toomey's Station Square office, they set up a mock podium and cardboard cut out of the senator. There they issued questions about President Donald Trump's Muslim ban, freedom of the press, immigration and workers rights.

"We decided to show Pat Toomey how easy it is to hold a town hall," said Jennifer McDowell, co-chair of the local Tuesdays with Toomey. "Look at all these friendly patriotic people here who just want to be heard."

On hand to answer the questions meant for Toomey were a group of legal experts who explained that a number of the actions being carried out by the federal government were not constitutional.

"The [Muslim ban] is a clear example of something that violates the first amendment because it favor one religion and harms another and that is why it's unconstitutional," said Melissa Harkes.

The fate of the weekly "Tuesdays with Toomey" is currently unclear in light of information that Toomey's office could be relocating to a building Downtown.

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U.S. Congressman Keith Rothfus dodges 130 constituents in first week back in district

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2017 at 1:43 PM

Keith Rothfus constituents holding up their ZIP codes at event in Beaver - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Keith Rothfus constituents holding up their ZIP codes at event in Beaver
There’s a common question among a group of Pennsylvania’s 12th U.S. congressional district constituents: “Where’s Keith?” City Paper has had trouble tracking down and speaking with the district’s congressman, Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley), in the past, and now similar problems appear to be spreading to the people who put him office. On Feb. 21, a group of more than 100 constituents held a town-hall event to address Rothfus in the borough building in downtown Beaver. Even though this is his first week back in his district while U.S. Congress is on recess and he was invited, Rothfus didn’t show. But the group went on with the event anyway, with dozens of constituents sharing stories of how repealing the Affordable Care Act would affect them.

Dan Savini, of Center Township in Beaver County, told the crowd about how his wife, currently insured through the ACA, has been living with multiple sclerosis for years, and that she still has more than two years until she qualifies for Medicaid.

“Without [the ACA], she would not be able to get her medication,” said Savini.

Savini was not shy about his feelings about Republicans in Congress, like Rothfus, who want to repeal the ACA. “In 2018, we got to come out and vote and get these guys out of here,” said Savini.

Another speaker to address the increasingly rowdy crowd was Terri Miller of Beaver Falls. (Chants of “ACA, must stay!” broke out a few times throughout the event.) Miller is an ovarian-cancer survivor and has had four major surgeries in connection with eliminating her cancer. She’s also concerned about what will happen if her ACA coverage is eliminated.

“I am afraid that I will lose my health care,” said Miller, “because I have a pre-existing condition.”

As the event was about to close, the more than 100 in attendance posed for a picture while holding up green signs with their ZIP code. Many Republican legislators, including Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, have accused town-hall-goers of being outside protesters and not actually constituents.

Dan Savini (right) of Center Township address the crowd in Beaver. - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Dan Savini (right) of Center Township address the crowd in Beaver.
Tina Shannon, the event's organizer, said she had attendees hold up their ZIP codes, in case Rothfus accused her of “shipping in a bunch of people by bus.”

On Feb.19, a few days before the Beaver event, another 30 constituents met at the Sewickley Public Library and invited Rothfus to discuss his stances on the ACA and a possible congressional investigation into Russia. CP also attended this event, and Rothfus never showed even though, according to Rothfus’ first statement of candidacy form, he lives less than one mile from the Sewickley Public Library.

The Sewickley event was organized by Chris Allen, who lives in the 15143 ZIP code, which includes Sewickley and its surroundings. She also started the group Quaker Valley for Common Goods in December 2016 to organize liberal-leaning voters in her area. Since Rothfus failed to show up, attendees, including Allen, spoke to an empty chair with a “Where’s Keith?” sign taped to it.

“My wife and I have been married since 1996, and I hear that you and the Republicans want to strip our rights,” said Allen. "I want you to look me in the face and tell me you are taking my rights. I am appalled that a child being able to use the bathroom is under attack. You need to show up and do your job.”

Ironically, Rothfus, whose office didn't respond to a request for comment on this story, penned an op-ed in Johnstown's Tribune-Democrat on Feb. 21, writing, "For decades, Washington has usurped the power and confiscated the wealth of ordinary Americans in ways our founders never envisioned. The founders established a limited government where sovereignty ... rests with the people. That is exactly what House Republicans are working to restore to our nation."  (On Feb. 20. Congressman Tim Murphy [R-Upper St. Clair] cancelled a Pittsburgh event because he caught wind that a small group of constituents planned to attend and ask face-to-face questions.)

Shannon, who also runs the 12th Congressional District chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America, said on Feb. 21 that Rothus’ absence is actually pretty typical behavior for the congressman. “He is not ever visible, and his positions are what we are against,” said Shannon. “We want to make him scared to do what he wants to do, to hang that bell around his neck.”

In fact, Rothfus’ political rival, Democratic congressional candidate Erin McClelland has been claiming that Rothfus has been absent for years, and he rarely, if ever, holds town halls. In response to Rothfus' actions, Shannon said she has been working extra hard since Rothfus’ re-election last November. And she said others are joining her.

“I have run out of sign-in sheets while canvassing,” said Shannon. “I can’t keep up. I had to form a data-entry team just to keep track of people wanting to join us.”

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy cancels Pittsburgh event to dodge his constituents

Posted By on Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 5:40 PM

  • Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Congressman Tim Murphy
U.S. House Reps return to their districts this week and a group of constituents of Congressman Tim Murphy (R-Upper St. Clair) were hoping to speak to him. And when they couldn't reach him, the group decided to speak to their representative at a planned event at Duquesne University but he cancelled when he heard they were coming.

Angela Wateska of Scott Township says she has reached out to Murphy’s Mount Lebanon office several times to request a meeting or a town hall, but workers there have been non-committal. They even told her to call Murphy’s Washington, D.C., office, which she did, and the D.C. office then claimed ignorance. So with her frustrations mounting, Wateska organized a group of six other Murphy constituents to confront Murphy face to face.

When Wateska’s group, called “412 Resistance,” caught word of a talk Murphy was holding at Duquesne University on Feb. 21, they decided to attend and ask their questions, mostly about the Affordable Care Act. A photo of the flyer for the event sent to City Paper, has no mention that the event was a private-function.

“We have been asking him for an actual town hall, and he won't do that,” says Wateska. “So we thought this was our one chance to ask him some questions.”

However, Murphy found out about the group trying to attend the event, and cancelled less than an hour before the start of the talk at 2:30 p.m.

“We were disappointed to learn that Congressman Murphy’s long-planned tour of the Duquesne University Psychology Department and discussion with students on his Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act had to be cancelled today,” wrote Murphy’s Press Secretary Carly Atchison in an email to CP. “Duquesne staff brought to our attention at the last minute that organizations not affiliated with the university were planning to disrupt the discussion and campus security was unable to guarantee the safety of all involved.”

Those constituents waiting to talk to him, including Wateska, were shocked. Wateska objects to the idea that she or any other constituent were there to disrupt.

“We didn't plan to protest at all,” says Watseka. “We just wanted a discussion with our representative. We wanted to ask questions on health care, like how people potentially losing the ACA will stay covered.”

Wateska said that most members wanted to ask him general questions about his policies, but a member of the group was planning to ask a question concerning mental health and how it relates to gun control. Murphy, a psychologist, has long pushed mental-health reform and the subject of the Duquesne talk was “Helping Families in Mental Health Crises Act.”

Wateska is disappointed Murphy would avoid face-to-face questions from his constituents.

“It is incredibly disappointing,” says Wateska. “A lot of take time out of our work and he bails, it is his job, he is our representative.”

Wateska and her group are not the only constituents Murphy hasn't met with. A group that calls themselves “Mondays with Murphy” (a riff on the Tuesdays with Toomey) has been trying to meet with Murphy for three weeks, according to Lynne Hughes of the group. Hughes, of Mount Lebanon says the group has met many times to try to talk to Murphy, sometimes bringing out more than 40 constituents, but has had no response from the congressman.

Wateska says that Murphy should not consider a group of his constituents as against him.

“It is also disappointing that he thinks of us disrupters when we are just looking at it as an opportunity to speak to him,” says Wateska. “Right now, my expectations are really low to ever have a meeting.”

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey holds telephone town hall

Posted By on Thu, Feb 16, 2017 at 5:31 PM

Senator Pat Toomey's telephone town hall page - IMAGE COURTESY OF VIDEO.TELEFORUMONLINE.COM
  • Image courtesy of video.teleforumonline.com
  • Senator Pat Toomey's telephone town hall page
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Lehigh) became infamous during his 2016 Senate campaign for never saying whether or not he endorsed Donald Trump. (He was even mocked on Jimmy Kimmel Live.) Toomey expressed concerned about the man who would become our 45th president, but never definitively denounced him.

Teetering on the line worked out for Toomey, who beat his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, by a slightly wider margin than Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. But this slight margin seems to be in votes only, as Toomey has quickly become one of the most attacked U.S. Senators by his own constituents.

Starting in late January, hundreds of Pennsylvanians have stormed his offices in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh every Tuesday as part of the Tuesdays with Toomey campaign. They called on the senator to vote against Trump’s cabinet picks, most notably now Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and asked him to not repeal the Affordable Care Act. His phone lines were jammed for days and he even received 1,660 faxes in a 24-hour span.

As the momentum grew, constituents started to demand Toomey hold a town hall. On Feb. 16, he met them part way by holding a telephone town hall to share his viewpoints and answer questions.

The town hall was announced via Toomey’s Facebook page about 90 minutes prior to its start. The town hall  lasted about 40 minutes. More than 15,000 constituents listened in. Toomey spent the first for 10 to 15 minutes sharing his views on the large volume of calls his office has been getting.

“We have had a very large volume of calls, from a combination of sources,” said Toomey. He then said that most calls are from concerned Pennsylvania citizens, but also claimed that some callers were part of an organized out-of-state effort to jam the phone lines. “Those whose goal is to obstruct is making it difficult for the other category.”

Toomey then went on to say the Democrats were also obstructing Trump’s cabinet nominees, adding that though both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s first weeks in office had at least 10 picks through, Trump’s first week only saw two confirmed.

“Confirming cabinet picks has been slow going because of Democrats,” said Toomey. “There are procedural processes to slow this down, and they have been slowing it down quite a bit.”

From there, Toomey answered 11 questions from constituents, and most weren't fluff. He was asked about his opinion on Trump’s travel ban (“The executive order was significantly flawed, it was too broad, should not have included green-card holders. … But the idea that we need to vet people from failed states that are hostile to the U.S. is a good one.”) and the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn ("General Flynn was not honest with Vice President [Mike] Pence and he lied to Pence. That is a fireable offence. ... But why was Flynn being spied on? Were they in violation of the law and who leaked it?").

When asked about his support of DeVos, Toomey defended his stance saying he believes DeVos will help improve school choice. "Competition will elevate everyone’s gain,” he said. He made the similar claim when denouncing the ACA, saying it’s flawed because 40 percent of Pennsylvanians only have one health provider to pick from. One Toomey voter asked how Toomey would help to spread out some of the wealth gained by billionaires so that it reaches working-class Pennsylvanians. Toomey responded that reforming the tax code, rolling back regulation and ending favoritism within Federal Reserve toward large companies  will increase investment, jobs and wages.

His softest question was from “Linda” from Montgomery County. She claimed her town of Pottstown had a lot of “not-so-nice” people moving in because of Philadelphia’s sanctuary-city policy, and asked what Toomey was doing to stop sanctuary cities. Toomey then reiterated his denouncement of sanctuary cities and explained his bill meant to defund them (which failed to clear the Senate in 2016). He also failed to ask “Linda” to clarify who the “not-so-nice” people are and how Philadelphia’s policy was causing o them moving to Pottstown, to the chagrin of many followers on Twitter after the telephone town hall.

Toomey said this was the 48th telephone town hall he had conducted in the last three years. But one listener still demanded an in-person town hall. “This is not good enough,” she said.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Immigrant-rights activists and constituents protest at Pittsburgh state Rep. Dom Costa's office

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2017 at 5:24 PM

Protesters outside Dom Costa's office in Morningside - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Protesters outside Dom Costa's office in Morningside
Pittsburgh-area state Rep. Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights) was recently listed as a co-sponsor on HB 14, an anti-immigrant bill that prohibits the creation of “Sanctuary Campuses.” This came as little surprise to Pittsburgh City Paper, since Costa co-sponsored several anti-immigrant bills last year alone. That's why we put him on our 2016 Shit List.

But after many calls and visits from constituents, Costa announced on Feb. 1 that he was “wrongly listed” as a co-sponsor on HB 14 and said he doesn't support the bill. Many immigrant-rights activists remained skeptical.

A group of 25 protested outside Costa's office in Morningside on the morning of Feb. 2. Some were with immigrant-rights groups, others were just Costa constituents who disagree with his voting record on immigrants.

Brad Quartuccio chanted with the group of protesters. He felt compelled to protest after reading the stories about Costa’s initial co-sponsorship of HB 14. “Dom is my rep and it has become very important to me to oppose bills like these,” said Quartuccio. “We need our state reps to represent us.”

While the group was chanting outside, Gabe McMorland, of activist group the Thomas Merton Center; Maria Duarte, an undocumented Chatham student from Mexico; and others met with Costa to discuss his stances on immigrant bills. After the meeting, McMorland said that while Costa reiterated that he would vote no on HB 14, the meeting did not go very well overall.

“Dom Costa told a young Latina woman that he knows what it is like to be profiled, because some people assume he is Hispanic,” said McMorland.

Apart from that gaffe, McMorland asked Costa to issue a public statement denouncing bills like HB 14. In a statement to CP, Costa wrote he refused to buckle to the group's demands and side with their position on "ILLEGAL and UNDOCUMENTED immigration."

"I told them my grandparents were immigrants and I am for immigration – but they have to be documented or at least going through the process to be documented,” Costa said in the statement. “I also said that the cities have got to stand up and be part of the solution.”

But McMorland questions Costa’s support and understanding of state bills that would dismantle sanctuary cities. Those are cities where local law enforcement don’t initiate contact with federal immigration officers.

“[Costa] said that he didn’t think that anti-sanctuary-city bills would lead to targeting of undocumented immigrants and more deportations,” said McMorland. “He said that police would not be out there trying to find undocumented people, but the bill he sponsored last year would have specifically required them to do just that.”

The bill Costa voted for in 2016 was HB 1885, which proposed cutting state funding to cities where local law-enforcement officers who have “reasonable cause to believe” an immigrant is undocumented “shall immediately report” that immigrant to federal immigration officials. (This bill has since been modified and is now under consideration by the state senate as SB 10.)

Costa, who served as the Pittsburgh's chief of police for nine months in 2006, said in his statement that he believes "most Americans value playing by the rules, which includes following the established legal process for entering the county and gaining citizenship."

Costa defended his position to not issue a public statement supporting the protesters. “I will review any and all immigration-related bills that come before the House on [a] case-by-case basis,” Costa said. “It would be foolish of me or any other legislator to issue a blanket statement on anything this complex.”

McMorland added that Costa told him he would be more comfortable supporting a sanctuary-city bill that provided a path to citizenship. However, Pennsylvania’s government has no authority to provide citizenship to immigrants. Only the federal government can do that.

"If he is genuine in his support," said McMorland, "then he certainly isn’t very good at his job."

Additionally, Costa's claim that his co-sponsorship of HB 14 was accidental is still in question.

CP spoke to a source in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, who requested anonymity, and who described the process of co-sponsoring a bill. According to the source, a co-sponsorship memorandum is sent to all legislators and their staffs via email. At the bottom of that email, there is a link that allows other legislators to co-sponsor. Once that link is clicked, users are redirected to a web browser with a page describing the memorandum. (If a user is not logged in, he/she will have to login before proceeding.) At the bottom of the web browser is a green “co-sponsor” button. Once clicked, a small window will open telling users they are now co-sponsors. To un-co-sponsor, users just need to click the green button again.

SB 10, the state's bill to de-fund sanctuary cities, is currently in the state senate's appropriations committee. You can track its process at www.legis.state.pa.us.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Pittsburgh state Rep. Dom Costa says initial support of anti-immigrant bill accidental; activists skeptical

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2017 at 11:35 AM

  • Photo courtesy of www.legis.state.pa.us
  • Dom Costa
Once the Pennsylvania general assembly opened its new session, many Republican lawmakers did what they have done for years: introduce bills aimed at scaring immigrants. Most of them never pass or even get out of committee, but their introduction does inform Pennsylvanians that lawmakers have their sights set on targeting undocumented immigrants.

And the start of the 2017 session showcased a doozy. HB 14 is a bill that proposes that law-enforcement personnel and employees of colleges and universities assist in immigration enforcement, and that would cut state funding for institutions that tell their employees not to communicate with federal immigration officers. Currently, any person in the U.S. can call in tips to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department. But Antonia Domingo, of Pittsburgh's Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, says the bill “undercuts trust” between university officials and immigrant students, because many immigrant students are on student visas and some are undocumented.

(Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University have issued public statements in support of their immigrant populations, with CMU saying it will “not [be] providing immigration or nationality information on any individual unless compelled by law.”)

Bills like HB 14 are almost always backed by Republicans, but one Pittsburgh-area Democrat is taking heat for his initial support.

State Rep. Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights) was originally listed as a co-sponsor on the bill and was the only Democratic co-sponsor. Then, at 1 a.m. on Jan. 31, Costa tweeted: “Thank you all for your concerns but I have wrongly been listed online as a cosponsor of HB14 and have requested to be removed as a cosponsor.”

Anita Boehm from Costa’s office told City Paper that Costa would not be voting for HB 14 and that it was an accident he was named as a sponsor.

“Representative Costa was inadvertently put on house bill as a co-sponsor,” she says. “He does not support the House Bill 14.”

However, some in the immigrant-rights camp are skeptical it was merely a clerical error.

Gabriel McMorland of advocacy group the Thomas Merton Center cites Costa’s recent record sponsoring and voting in favor of anti-immigrant legislation.

In last year’s session alone, Costa co-sponsored eight bills and resolutions that targeted immigrants and refugees. For example, he co-sponsored and voted in favor of HB 1885, which seeks to strip funding from so called sanctuary municipalities (ones where local law enforcement don’t initiate contact with ICE). He co-sponsored a House resolution asking Gov. Tom Wolf to reject new Syrian refugees in the state, and co-sponsored HB 237, which requires proof of citizenship to acquire public benefits. (It was Costa’s almost constant sponsorship of anti-immigrant legislation that got him on CP’s Shit List last year.)

Sundrop Carter, of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizen Coalition, says there is no documented case in Pennsylvania of an undocumented immigrant receiving public benefits.

Additionally, public pressure might have been a factor in Costa retreating on the bill. Last week, McMorland spoke to dozens of Costa’s constituents, who told McMorland they were planning to contact Costa’s office to object to his sponsorship. “I know a lot of people who have called his office,” says McMorland.

Alex Hanson, of labor coalition Pittsburgh United, says that he and others called Costa’s office two days ago to object to Costa’s sponsorship of HB 14. Hanson says this is the time for state officials to stand up publicly for immigrant rights.

“There is a very clear choice, for elected officials to choose what side they are on, and we need them to publicly and physically be on the side of immigrants in our community,” says Hanson. “We are glad that [Costa] removed his sponsorship and we look forward to him standing up for the immigrant community.”

McMorland agrees. He would like to see Costa take a firmer stance in protecting immigrants. “I don't think that any of his constituents are reassured that he claimed to make a mistake,” says McMorland. “I think people want to hear that he will protect immigrants in Pennsylvania.”

One of those immigrants is Maria Duarte. She is a student at Chatham University, just one mile outside of Costa’s district, and an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Duarte is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and is protected from deportation, but President Donald Trump has been noncommittal on whether he will end that program.

Duarte says that Chatham has provided a feeling of protection in this era of uncertainty.

“I feel that being at a university is such a safe place, it empowers you to come out of the shadows,” says Duarte. “[HB 14 is] forcing universities to not be inclusive. I don't understand how this would empower anyone.”

Duarte worries that bills like HB 14 are showing that anti-immigrant attitudes are spreading from a national stage, down to state and local levels. “I think this just goes to show that the bigotry is not just on a national level, but something that is happening everywhere.”

HB 14 is currently in the state House’s State Government committee, run by Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), one of Pennsylvania’s most outspoken supporters of anti-immigrant legislation.

Information on state legislation and representatives can be found at www.legis.state.pa.us.

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