Disruption at Kasich’s Largest Rally to Date Undermines Campaign Message

At about an hour into Gov. Kasich’s April 9th Town Hall outside of Rochester, the candidate requested his audience — the largest he had drawn since the start of his campaign — to reflect on one of the central themes of his campaign.

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

“At this snapshot in time, what did we do to heal our country?” the candidate asked. “To lift people next to us, to slow down and pay attention to people who are often ignored?”

Although Michelle Fridley, a resident of Canandaigua, NY who attended the rally, never wanted to create a disruption in the Town of Greece Community and Senior Center, she felt compelled to speak up and pose the same question back to Gov. Kasich. Ms. Fridley, along with several other disability rights advocates from the area, began chanting “DISABILITY, INTEGRATION, ACT NOW!” when they realized that the candidate was not going to address their concerns.

The group, representing Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, better known as ADAPT, said they had been the first in line at 7am, and waited for hours in frigid 30 degree temperature to find out the governor’s stance on the Disability Integration Act.

“We felt like we knew his stance right when we came in here, after waiting hours and being the first here, and then being told that we have to be in this section,” Ms. Fridley stated.  We sat here taking pictures of the backs of peoples’ heads…but we had to interrupt to get our question answered.”

After 20 seconds of chanting, the packed crowd of Kasich supporters began to respond with rabid boos.  Several plain-clothed volunteers for the campaign created a barrier between the advocates and the crowd, holding signs with messages in support of the candidate.  Although the obscured the view of most of the crowd and television cameras stationed in the back of the room, they allowed journalists to stand near the advocates.

Gov. Kasich attempted to calm down the crowd and address the advocates.  “Don’t be angry at me, you don’t know what I’ve done,” Gov. Kasich interjected in his trademark folksy demeanor.  Gov. Kasich started to continue, “First of all, the single biggest increase in my budget in the state of Ohio is to help the disabled.  Second…” But before he could progress, with his planned response, one advocate shouted back, informing the audience that a long list of Ohioans with physical disabilities were waiting to receive a Medicaid waiver to receive in home care.  The advocate was citing statistics in a pending lawsuit brought against the governor’s state by Disability Rights Ohio.

More information on the pending lawsuit can be found in this report at Cleveland.com.

The candidate was unable to continue with his planned response, as one of the advocates shouted back, attempting to inform the audience that 25,000 Ohioans with physical disabilities were on waiting lists to get out of nursing homes.  The crowd began to turn on the advocates, who were again chanting.

The governor stepped in again,

 “I wanna tell you somethin’… Cause I heard that this might come here.  I went to school in the 70s, I know what protest is.  [Crowd laughs and applauds.]  We have worked aggressively, by the way, to work to get [people with disabilities] out of these institutions and into the community, and for doing that, by the way, we’ve been criticized.  The guy that runs my program has a son who is an adult who is severely developmentally disabled.  Of course we’re helping these folks.”

Fridley clapped back, “Not in Ohio,” and the candidate responded in-kind: “Yes, in Ohio.”

Gov. Kasich returned to his planned response:

“Throughout this country, let’s go back and think about some of these civil rights movements.  I mean, it wasn’t that long ago when African Americans were discriminated against, well, and they still have an uphill struggle in many respects, and thank goodness they joined, and they protested, and they changed the law.  The developmentally disabled, they live in the shadows.  And politicians run over them because, you know what, they don’t have any political clout.  Well they do have clout, but it’s not here.  And I don’t mind this, because we all have to be aware of the fact that the developmentally disabled and their families have a very difficult time—”

The governor was again interrupted, and he began to talk over an advocate who was explaining:

 “We’re not developmentally disabled, we’re physically disabled and we’re stuck in nursing homes!

As the advocate was attempting to argue that her concerns as a person with a physical disability were distinct from the issues faced by the developmentally disabled, the Governor continued:

“And so, we’re going to do everything we can do to make sure that they have an opportunity to rise. And I think with that, we’ve heard enough.  Thank you.”

The crowd applauded at the conclusion of Kasich’s remarks to the advocates, but when the advocates continued to chant, Kasich supporters began to heckle the protestors.  One man yelled “KICK HER OUT OF HERE,” a woman shouted “BE RESPECTFUL!” and another woman in earshot asked her friend, “why is he even talking to them.”  One advocate shouted back, “you’re not stuck in a nursing home!” and many supporters in attendance began to file out of the venue.

Ms. Fridley explained to this reporter after the rally that although some in the audience may have been frustrated with the disruption, the Disability Integration Act Was too significant to accept an unclear response from the candidate.  “It’s just as important as the Americans with Disabilities Act was because it will free people from nursing homes,” Ms. Fridley stated. “Across the United States, people are having to move across states to avoid a nursing home.”

It was difficult to hear the questions that followed, and at one point a campaign staffer muttered “That’s it, shut it down,” as he ran toward the advocates.  But the local police and Secret Service continued to reason with the advocates.  This reporter was surprised at the patience of the event’s security, especially after seeing animal rights advocates aggressively yanked from a rally for Senator Bernie Sanders in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  The head of local police security talked respectfully to the advocates until the conclusion of Gov. Kasich’s Town Hall, and at one point promising the group a private audience with the candidate.  He also repeatedly stated that he was not going to arrest anyone.

As Gov. Kasich continued to take questions from the audience in spite of continued interruptions, a grey-suited campaign staffer came back into the venue to deliver a message to the advocates:

“I have confirmation that your leadership has received an email from us with our position statement.  He answered that question.  He will not comment on specific legislation as a sitting governor.  So that is our response.  So you say that you didn’t get a chance to ask question?  He answered the question.”

After the rally, Ms. Fridley articulated to a gaggle of local press that the email response did nothing to assuage her concerns.  “The email follow-up contact was that he wasn’t going to discuss legislation with us.”  Ms. Fridley continued, “We basically got an email that said we’re not really tellin ya, and we aren’t gonna tell ya.”

WVBR News was the first to get a look at a copy of the campaign’s official email response referenced by the letter, and it appears that Ms. Fridley’s disapproval was justified. The documents can be found here: http://imgur.com/a/LEHMe.

While the campaign expected that Kasich’s policy of refusing to comment on pending legislation as a sitting governor justified their choice not to take a particular stance on the Disability Integration Act, a slew of recent examples of the candidate taking stances on legislation calls into question the validity of this claim.  In an extensive, policy-heavy interview with the New York Daily News conducted only a day before his policy chairman emailed his response to ADAPT, the self-proclaimed “policy wonk” advocated overturning NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s end the state’s moratorium on fracking, rejected the imposition of a federal minimum wage, and announced that he would not support any federal gun control legislation.

It perplexes this reporter that the candidate was willing to admit to using marijuana 30 years ago on a Detroit radio station last month, but is so evasive in responding to requests that he take a stance on the Disability Integration Act.

According to Adam Prizio, the Manager of Government Affairs for the Center for Disability Rights in Albany, NY, even the campaign’s gestures of support of the group at the rally were hollow.  “Governor Kasich used our people as props for a photo opportunity and has not followed through on his commitments in that meeting.”  Prizio added, “He told our people he would have his staff contact us immediately about it. Two days later, his staff have not contacted us.”

WVBR News was successful, however, in receiving a response, albeit dismissive, ill-informed, and off-topic from the campaign.  Senior Communications Advisor Chris Schrimpf’s email read:

“The fact is that the Governor [sic] met with them for ten minutes after the event and took pictures with them.  When they disrupted Hillary Clintons [sic] event I do not believe she took the time to meet with them.”

If Mr. Shrimpf had been at the rally listening to the advocates, he might have understood why Secretary Clinton did not take the time to meet with them.  As the campaign staffer issued his response “Hillary supports it, Sanders supports it, why won’t he support it?” Ferry stated, alluding to the fact that both Sec. Clinton and her husband and campaign surrogate, Pres. Bill Clinton had expressed their support for the legislation at campaign rallies in Upstate New York and Pennsylvania over the past two weeks.

Debbie Bonomo, an advocate who spoke with this reporter after the rally concluded, was not willing to give the candidate the benefit of the doubt:

“I don’t think he’s being fully honest with the public… These are public forums, we wanna know more about our candidates so we can make an informed choice… He’s running for the biggest office in the United States, what he can do can impact so many people with disabilities at so many levels.”

This reporter asked Bonomo why the issue was so important to her—important enough to compel her to disrupt the event.  Her response was heartrending:

“My husband in 2002 had a severe stroke, which most people die from.  He was a strong willed guy, but because of the attendant services programs available here, I was able to advocate for his care to be in our home where he thrived for the next four and a half years. 

His disability was Brittle Bones disease, so it was very easy for him to break a bone… In our two weeks apart in the hospital, breaking three limbs, and then being home for four and a half years, no fractures.  It was just amazing, because I was able to train the attendants and keep him going and thriving. 

Now I utilize the same service and be in my own home and maintain my own aids through this program. I’m thrilled.  If I didn’t have it I would be forced to go into a nursing home, because that’s the way the system is set up.”

Although the campaign has been playing Justin Bieber’s pop hit “Sorry” to conclude his rallies over the past few weeks, the lyrics took on a sense of irony as the candidate concluded his remarks and the song blared through the venue.  In spite of the respectful treatment of the advocates by security, one cannot help but wonder whether the candidate was shaking the hands of his supporters and asking the same questions as Mr. Bieber: “Yeah I know that I let you down/Is it too late to say I’m sorry now?”

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