1:50 pm Mar. 19, 20122
California Republican Darrell Issa laughed off his rough reception at Brooklyn Borough Hall for a field hearing on foreclosure, convened on Monday morning by the House Oversight Committee at the request of his colleague, Brooklyn Democrat Ed Towns.
"Mr. Chairman, I wanted you to know that we're delighted to have you in Brooklyn, of course," said Towns. "Despite the reception that you received, we're delighted to have you, there's no doubt about it."
It was only a few minutes into the opening statements in a packed hearing room, but a couple dozen protesters had already been escorted out, chanting "Darrell! Issa! Is the One Percent!"
"Those people are from Manhattan, I'm sure," Issa told Towns, who he had introduced as "my good friend."
The joke didn't go over particularly well with the few remaining protesters.
"No we're not! No we're not! We're from Brooklyn!" came the shouts from the back. "We're from Brooklyn! Ed Towns go home!"
Towns, who is currently facing a tough primary challenge from Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and Councilman Charles Barron, had organized the hearing in the hopes of very visibly addressing the borough's foreclosure crisis, and demonstrating to constituents the kind of sway that comes with his nearly three decades of seniority.
But the merits of the hearing were largely overshadowed by the presence of Issa, a polarizing presence for his part in dismantling the Brooklyn-based organizing group ACORN, and, more recently, an Oversight hearing on contraception that failed to include any women on its first panel. Bertha Lewis, one of ACORN's founders, had helped spearhead the protest, telling me on Friday that she considered Issa a "political necrophiliac" for his treatment of the organization.
Some of the anger at Issa spilled over to Towns. Protesters shouted "Shame on Towns! Protecting the rich!" as they pressed police officers and security personnel to let them into the public hearing, even after the upstairs hearing room was packed to the walls. The officers physically guided the protesters from the ante room out into the upstairs antrium, where late-arriving Pennsylvania Republican Todd Platts had to take a minute to convince a security officer he was a congressman who was there for the hearing.
Five members of Congress made the trip, including Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, who was appointed ranking member after Democratic leadership failed to support Towns' seniority claim on that title. The witnesses included representatives from the country's biggest banks, along with the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Not present was New York Attorney General Eric Schneierman, whose invitation to the hearing Towns had advertised in his press advisory, but who had decided not to attend.
Before any witnesses began their testimony, Issa was interrupted while explaining how field hearings are just like hearings in Washington "except we get more local color," and the chairman displayed the kind of combative defensiveness that one might expect from the man who voices the "step away from the car" warning for the Viper car alarms.
"Ladies and gentlemen who remain, this is a hearing not run by Republicans or Democrats, this is a hearing in which the people of Brooklyn have a unique opportunity because of their member, to participate in a respectful way," said Issa, who told the crowd it was an opportunity for the people to the banks and regulators questioned by the committee.
"Many of the people who left the room dislike the regulators, because they haven't done enough, and the banks, because they didn't do it right. This is your chance to hear them being asked questions. They will in fact be held accountable. That's what we do here," he said, to light laughs from a few cynics.
"I will ask that please from here on, understand that exactly the protesters' sentiment is why we're here today. This is something that's been asked for and asked for by the very groups that left here after being disrespectful."
Shortly thereafter, he stopped a witness to chastise someone in the back row.
"Ma'am with your hair pulled back in the back row. This is a hearing about these people speaking, not your having an endless conversation. If you're not interested, leave," he said, before turning back to the witness. "Please continue."
In the afternoon, Towns office sent out a press release responding to the protests, and echoing Issa's comments at the hearing.
“Today’s hearing is about holding banks and mortgage servicers accountable and getting to the bottom of how we can help those who have been most severely impacted by this crisis,” he said in the statement. “Brooklyn is at the epicenter of this foreclosure crisis, and has been one of the hardest hit areas in the country. The very sentiment and anger that was expressed today is why I brought the Committee to Brooklyn, and will remaincommitted to getting answers from the banks.”