Sunday, August 6, 2023

BTRTN: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing -- Mike Lawler (R-NY17) Holds a Town Hall

Tom catches up with his U.S. Representative, a GOP rep in a high profile swing district.

For years we lived in New York's 18th district, a swing district that has been represented by Republicans and Democrats alike.  Often the race for that district was the most expensive congressional campaign in the country.  We were redistricted in 2022, and found ourselves in the 17th, which was clearly going to be a swing district as well in the November election.  

We had been represented in the 18th by Sean Patrick Maloney, once one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, a man who was there at the start of Bill Clinton’s candidacy (working with Hillary in 1991), worked in the Clinton White House and, after being elected to Congress in 2012, rose to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  In that role he was charged with working to ensure the election of Democrats to the House.  With that feather came a bulls-eye, and the GOP targeted him in 2022.  Maloney's residence had shifted to the 17th, so he decided to run for that seat, effectively forcing out Democratic incumbent Mondaire Jones.  He found himself in a dogfight with Mike Lawler, a smooth-talking, fence-straddling 36-year-old Republican, who rode the crime “issue” (like other Republicans in New York State) to an upset over Maloney, winning by less than 2,000 votes, out of more than 285,000 cast. 

Lawler came to my town for a Q&A session a few days ago and a friend of mine and I decided to go and see what he had to say.  He was there with a full retinue of staffers at our Town Hall billed as an 11 AM to 2 PM event.  He showed up at 12:40 PM to find a group of about 30 constituents waiting.  He offered both a “public” Q&A session and then some private time for those who had specific personal issues that they hoped the congressman could address. 

Over the next 100 minutes, Lawler proceeded to put on a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing performance to an audience that appeared to be largely leaning left – and was not buying his act.  It was perhaps a typical performance for a swing district representative, but highly unusual to watch in our polarized times.  He generally avoided any of the FOX News red meat that enrages the left, occasionally rebuked the worst of his GOP colleagues, and just as occasionally praised President Biden.  But he quite often spoke in unmistakable GOP code, using party line bullet points.  He smoothly bobbed and weaved by adopting an approach in which he rarely detailed his own views, except when pressed (hard), instead summarizing the positions of both sides and cluck-clucking about the need for compromise.  On the harder issues, he would consistently “pivot” to frame them on terms with which he was comfortable.  At times he cut off persistent questioners and talked over objections from the crowd, always seeking safer terrain and eliding over obvious logic (and data) gaps in his thought process. 

There were a number of articulate constituents from the left who dominated the proceedings.  There were also some clear Lawler supporters but they were quieter and voiced only a few concerns, which he handled on campaign autopilot.  He fared less well under the barrage of questions from the left.

·        On abortion.  He wrapped himself in his public opposition to a national abortion ban, and expressed the vanilla view that people had different ideas about when a proper cutoff might be, the need for (unspecified) exceptions, and refrained from presenting his own views.  He got into more trouble in his attempts to “both sides” the issue, saying that “extremists” on both the left and right were "over-emotionalizing" the issue, and he wished for more kumbaya.  This is wishy-washy poppycock; Lawler is clearly not bemoaning Dobbs.


·        On immigration.  Lawler again tried invoking the “both sides” nonsense.  He stated the obvious, that Democrats needed to accept tougher border security and Republicans needed to be more accommodating on DACA and the entire group of 11.5 million plus undocumented immigrants.  But when several constituents pointed out that the “Gang of Eight” crafted a bipartisan bill that did just that in 2013, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, only to die in the GOP-controlled House, Lawler had no answer -- except to harken back to 2005 when George W. Bush attempted to pursue immigration reform, failing to mention that it was also the GOP that rejected Bush’s bill.  There is no "both sides" here -- except that many politicians on "both sides" agree with the Gang of Eight forumulation -- as only "one side" has walked away from this rational approach, twice.


·        On gun control.  Lawler was confronted directly on the issue of assault weapon bans, and he attempted to dodge the issue by reducing the conversation to a detailed discussion of specific categories of weapons (“you know, some handguns are automatic weapons”), refusing to engage on the concept of whether ordinary citizens should be allowed to carry weapons capable of mass killings in mere seconds.  He attempted to pivot to various “school safety” measures he endorsed (such as emergency buttons) and the old reliable GOP standby, flipping the issue from availability of guns to “mental health” concerns.  But the short answer, to be clear, is that, for all of his posturing, Mike Lawler is never going to vote for any ban on any class of weapons.


·        On the economy.  Lawler was asked about a negative statement he made about the state of the economy given all the recent positive news (3% inflation, 2.4% GDP growth, 3.6% unemployment with steady job growth, especially in manufacturing).  He rather oddly pivoted directly to the New York State economy, pointing to the state debt and the population “outmigration” trends.  When pressed, he conceded the national picture was better but said that we have a ways to go and some people were hurting.  No one would contest that assessment, which is always true on some level, but the national figures are, at this particular time, nearly as good as one could ever hope for. 


·        On Medicare and Social Security.  Once again Lawler simply stated the obvious – that he was opposed to any cuts in these programs but also that “something had to be done” to ensure their ultimate solvency.  He thus hoped to steer clear of the third rail, which is to specify exactly what should be done.  He did appear to be expressing tentative support for changing the eligibility age for these programs from 65 to 67, on a grandfathered basis for anyone now nearing 65.  But that, of course, is a “cut” by anyone’s definition, another needle that cannot be thread.


·        On crime.  When asked by a supporter Lawler went on a riff about the issue, but was challenged by a very well-versed constituent who cited statistic after statistic, fact after fact, that crime trends are actually on the decline.  But Lawler said he disagreed with that statement and those facts, and, when pressed to produce data to support his claims that crime was on the rise, promised to put such data on his website.  We’ll see.


·        On Ukraine.  Lawler might have surprised the righties with his unequivocal support of Ukraine and praise for the Biden Administration’s handling of it.  But he framed the issue by personalizing it, explaining that his wife emigrated from Moldova just over a decade ago, and still has family near the Ukraine border.  Perhaps he was hoping to win over his Democratic constituents with his Biden-backing while mollifying the Republicans who brought it up (in opposition) by giving a personal reason for his support.  Slick.


·        On Trump.  Perhaps the most definitive exchange took place over Trump.  The Lawler meeting took place the day after Trump was indicted for the third time, for conspiracies related to Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.  Lawler was asked what he felt about the indictment and he gravely stated that Trump “would have to answer for his actions.”  I asked Lawler directly, whether he would endorse Trump if he became the GOP nominee, and if he would vote for him.  He said he would not endorse Trump but equivocated on whether he would vote for him, demurring with the concept that there would be a choice.  He took this opportunity to diss Biden’s mental condition as well with a rather snide innuendo:  “I’ve talked to him.”  I’m not sure this anti-Trump stance was “breaking news” but Trump does not take kindly to any Republican who does not support him, and is impervious to swing district nuance.  We’ll see if Trump tries to find a far right Trumpster to primary Lawler. 

Not surprisingly, Lawler struck a very a different tone on the general topic of the Trump indictments when he was in front of a far more conservative audience, a FOX News panel:

Obviously, here Lawler is playing to the base, hewing to the GOP party line that the DOJ has been “weaponized.”  This was not a line he dared use with his North Castle constituents. 

Our swing district mirrors our polarized country.  On issues like the gun control, reproductive health rights and climate change, the district surely reflects what every national survey shows: that the vast majority of Americans are aligned with the Democratic Party in seeking to limit access to guns that enable mass killings, guarantee the right to make decisions over one’s own body, and enact legislation that will accelerate decarbonization.  Mike Lawler is not fighting for any of those things, although he pays lip service to them.  Sean Patrick Maloney was no progressive, but he was unmistakably not wishy-washy on matters that are near and dear to us – or on any issues, for that matter.  We knew where he stood.  At the end of the day, we who reside in NY-17 deserve representation that will fight for our majority views on these issues. 

The Democratic primary for a challenger to Lawler is taking shape.  Mondaire Jones is the biggest name in the field; the former congressman who was, in effect, redistricted out of his seat in 2022.  Liz Whitmer Gereghty,a school board member and sister of the Michigan Governor, has also joined the fray.  Another candidate, MaryAnn Carr, a member of another local town council, attended the Lawler Q&A and gently rebuked his claims at times, while passing her contact information around to various attendees.  While Democrats will take proper time and care to determine the best challenger to Lawler, we would do well to unite behind the primary winner in an all-out effort to regain this crucial seat.




  1. Thanks for sharing, Tom. As a member of this district I’ve been trying to sort him out on the important issues. Thanks for putting a spotlight on him.

  2. Is Lawler capable of answering a simple yes/no question about his undermining of reproductive rights? It appears not.

    1. of course Lawler can answer a simple yes or no question. His answer takes the form "I am totally committed doing what's right because this issue is very important with strong considerations on both sides but after careful deliberation I have decided that I agree with you."

  3. Thank you! Was unable to attend, but so appreciate this recap.

  4. I was at the session. This is a great overview of what transpired. Lawler really plays his “bi-partisan” card whenever he can…but his votes and his rhetoric don’t align. He tries to “thread the needle”….and knows it…and doesn’t like when he’s called out.

  5. Hi I’m running in a swing district in lower westchester against a Lawler-Trump-Desantis mini-me. If you have time to help me please reach out—the election is a mere 62 days away (early voting starts Oct 28)! My race is the runway for 2024 and if we beat the #MAGA agenda this year we’ll have the tools and team to win next fall. or

    1. Feel free to write me an email at


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