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As some Democrats seek Trump’s impeachment, a few moderates try to change the subject

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Rep. Anthony Brindisi, shown at an American Legion post in New York, is an ardent anti-impeachment Democrat.
(Jennifer Haberkorn / Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Anthony Brindisi does not want to talk about the Mueller report.

He doesn’t want to talk about impeachment. Or subpoenaing President Trump’s tax returns. Or the coming onslaught of House investigations.

The freshman Democrat prefers to talk about Spectrum, the loathed local cable company. Fighting the TV and internet provider was a marquee issue in his successful campaign to oust a pro-Trump Republican last year, and he’s hoping to do the same while in office, even if his colleagues are getting more attention for focusing on weightier national issues.

As 2020 contenders and progressive House Democrats loudly push the party to pursue articles of impeachment, several moderates elected just months ago in parts of the country where the president is popular are trying to find a way to talk about something — anything — else, knowing that whatever side they take on impeachment is going to anger a sizable chunk of their district and make reelection harder.

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Brindisi is likely to face one of the toughest battles in 2020. His New York state district — a largely rural area of dairy farms dotted by medium-sized towns — is one of the country’s most conservative that is currently represented in Congress by a Democrat. He will run for reelection in a district that voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 15 percentage points, the biggest margin of any district that elected a freshman Democrat to the House.

Brindisi is perhaps the most ardent anti-impeachment Democrat. Among the first in the House to come out against removing the president, he’d rather keep the conversation back home on the fight between his constituents and Spectrum.

Brindisi says he’s responding to what his constituents want, noting that cable is one of the top issues that prompt people to call his office.

“The way you win an election, but more importantly govern, is by focusing on issues that people care about,” he said in an interview in an American Legion hall in his district. “The more we can focus on issues and less on the president, the better it is for the country.”

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He said his constituents don’t “wake up” thinking about the Mueller report or Russia. “You’re thinking about: ‘I’m working two jobs, I’m struggling to put food on the table, I now just got this big medical bill for my child that I have to figure out how to pay.’ ”

Spectrum — which Brindisi says is charging too much and not providing adequate service — has taken a prominent spot in his first 100 days in office. Weeks into his tenure, he demanded that the FCC explain how it would hold the company accountable. He’s held a roundtable with people who have issues with Spectrum. His first bill would require any cable company fined by its state service commission to make disclosures on fees charged and internet speeds delivered. He’s wrapping the anti-Spectrum campaign in common Democratic themes, such as holding large corporations — which just benefited from a GOP tax cut — accountable.

Officials at Charter Communications, which operates Spectrum, did not comment on Brindisi. But they defended their service. “The fact is Spectrum customers across upstate are receiving dramatically faster speeds and better value [than] they did before we began serving the area,” the company said in a statement.

Brindisi’s position puts him at odds with liberal elected officials and voters who propelled the midterm “blue wave” into Congress just months ago. The Bronx district of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is geographically only 200 miles away but couldn’t be further away politically. Shortly after a redacted version of the Mueller report was released, she said she’d support an impeachment resolution, joining a pro-impeachment cohort that includes Reps. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and Al Green of Texas.

Some moderates, including Brindisi, are trying to walk a tightrope by saying they approve of additional oversight of the White House, such as the House’s investigations into Trump and his businesses, but draw the line at impeachment.

“There has to be oversight,” he said. “But I would prefer to hear more in caucus meetings about what [are] our plans on infrastructure, what are we doing on healthcare costs.”

The tension over impeachment gets to the heart of the struggle Democrats have ahead of 2020: If they are going to hang onto their newfound House majority, they need to win again in places like central New York. Brindisi and other moderates need to hang onto some of those Trump voters while not disappointing the Democrats who elected them to serve as a check on the president.

On the whole, the country may be more aligned with Brindisi. Only about one-third of registered voters say Congress should begin impeachment proceedings, according to a recent poll by Morning Consult and Politico. Even among those who view Trump unfavorably, there is not strong support for removing him from office. Only 57% of the people who have unfavorable views of Trump say Congress should start impeachment proceedings. That figure rose to only 64% among people who professed to have “very unfavorable” views of Trump.

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Democratic leaders have tried to tamp down the impeachment talk. All 235 House Democrats were on hand Tuesday for their first closed-door meeting after a two-week recess and “not a moment ... was spent on impeachment,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Even so, Brindisi and other moderate Democrats may not be able to avoid the uncomfortable topic entirely.

At a town hall meeting in his district last week, Brindisi’s constituents at first appeared uninterested in talking about Mueller. More than 120 people crowded into a middle-school theater to ask what Brindisi could do about limited broadband internet access and weak cellphone service, helping local dairy farmers become certified organic and the cost of flood insurance.

But after an hour, constituent Jeff Dunckle broached the impeachment question — asking Brindisi to be a “vocal supporter of calls for impeachment.” The crowd cheered.

In response, Brindisi pledged to speak out when the president was “doing something to harm our community,” state or country. But he said he didn’t want impeachment. He’d rather focus on making sure a foreign country could not again interfere with the election.

The crowd applauded Brindisi’s reply, but for some people, including Dunckle, the answer appeared to fall flat.

“You not only have a responsibility, in my opinion, to the people of New York 22,” he said, referring to Brindisi’s district in a follow-up question. “But you also have an astounding responsibility to this country.”

Although the town hall crowd skewed liberal, the district does not. Registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats by nearly 30,000, and Brindisi suspects that Trump is popular in this region today.

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For that reason, Republicans have made Brindisi a top target in 2020, hoping Trump’s position at the top of the ballot will bring those GOP voters to the polls. Former Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney has hinted that she’s considering a rematch.

“Your first term is your most vulnerable one. Claudia Tenney is over his head like a sword of Damocles,” said former Rep. Richard Hanna, a moderate Republican who represented this district from 2011 to 2017 and supported Brindisi in his 2018 campaign. Democrats “cannot ignore the fact people like Brindisi are in seats they can easily lose. And it’s hard to get them back.”

Brindisi has successfully balanced overtures to Trump on bipartisan issues like infrastructure while speaking out on certain issues, such as the child-parent separations at the southern U.S. border, according to Luke Perry, director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research. But that equilibrium may be shattered if the House takes a vote on impeachment or a censure of the president.

“That could be a crucial moment,” Perry said. “The grassroots that helped to elevate [Brindisi] are very tolerant and patient with his middle-of-the-road approach. But they were inspired by the election of Donald Trump.That is terrain that he has to tread cautiously.”

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