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GOP lawmaker town halls face liberal discontent

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Constituents of Republican Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham are planning town hall meetings in his district this week, although he’s out of the country and won’t attend.

LaTrice Watkins, 38, of Detroit, wears a chicken suit as she and others peacefully protest along E. Big Beaver as they do The Chicken Dance during their rally outside the Troy office of GOP Rep. Dave Trott earlier this month.

Residents in the district of GOP Rochester Rep. Mike Bishop are inviting him to a town hall during the April congressional recess, saying they’ll stand up a cardboard cutout of his likeness if he doesn’t show.

Activists rallied with signs outside Trott’s office in Troy and Bishop’s in Brighton in recent weeks, as well as the offices of Republican Reps. Bill Huizenga in Grandville and Tim Walberg in Jackson, where demonstrators left behind bags of candy conversation hearts on Valentine’s Day. And a crowd of more than 600 showed up this month at a town hall in Grand Rapids hosted by GOP Rep. Justin Amash.

The protests and town halls, as well as a flood of calls to congressional offices in the last month, are part of a nationwide uptick in Democratic activism that is borrowing tactics from the conservative tea party, which grew to a mass movement in 2009.

Organizers want face time with their members of Congress to discuss the Trump administration’s plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the Republican president’s controversial ban on travelers and refugees, among other topics.

Several Michigan activists said they got ideas from an advocacy guide published online by the Indivisible network, which pledges to “resist the Trump agenda.” Dozens of groups in Metro Detroit have registered on the Indivisible site, which was assembled by former Democratic congressional staffers.

“I wasn’t active politically before,” said Gretchen Hertz of Brighton, who is organizing a town hall for April 11 and inviting Bishop. “People want him to know that we’re not really that happy with everything that Trump is doing, and we don’t want you to rubber stamp it.”

Rep. Justin Amash, right, speaks to people being turned away at the door because of overcrowding before the start of a town hall meeting at City High Middle School in Grand Rapids on Feb. 9.

Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Austin, Texas, said the activity is reminiscent of when grassroots conservatives protested the government stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and other initiatives in the early days of the Obama administration.

An early organizer with the tea party movement, Steinhauser says he came up with the idea of bringing a cardboard cutout of a congressman to a town hall, then calling the media to report he didn’t show up.

“This is about being out of power,” Steinhauser said of the activism. “It’s a combination of losing the election and also the fear of the policies coming out of Washington. Unfortunately, people tend to not rally or protest their legislators when they want to do something positive. They protest and call legislators to stop ideas or policies that they disagree with.”

The protest uprisings have their differences. President Barack Obama had a seven-month honeymoon before protesters descended in large numbers on town halls during the August 2009 congressional recess to complain about the Democratic president’s plans to enact a sweeping health care law.

The rumblings of the liberal backlash against Republican members started before Trump took office last month with promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act within three months.

Facing the constituents

Like with the tea party movement, the activity has sent congressional staffers scrambling — meeting with protesters and trying to respond to the influx of calls and emails.

Huizenga is planning a town hall Saturday in Lake County and is searching for a venue that holds more than 500 in the southern part of his district for the first week in March, spokesman Brian Patrick said.

Huizenga has hosted “tele-town halls” this year, taking questions by phone, and has previously used Facebook’s Live video feature for question-and-answer sessions.

“We understand there are people who do not support Congressman Huizenga, do not support President Trump. We want to hear their opinions, as well,” Patrick said.

Ingrid Tierney holds a sign she made when she participated in the Women's March on Washington as she pickets in Rochester Hills.

Bishop’s office has logged more than 2,300 calls and sent more than 5,000 emails and nearly 1,300 letters in response to constituent concerns since Jan. 1, according to his office.

“Congressman Bishop is in session this week but is aware of the protests and fully hears the concerns voiced by those who are participating,” spokeswoman Kelli Ford said last week during the fifth protest this year at Bishop’s Brighton office.

“Congress has had votes 23 out of 46 days this year. He has been working around that and is connecting with constituents as much as possible.”

Bishop recently hosted two calls when he took questions by phone. His office says this method reaches thousands more people than could fit into an in-person town hall and is better for seniors with limited transportation, especially in winter.

Dating to his days as a state lawmaker, Amash has taken a different approach than his colleagues. He has held two town halls so far this year, despite the busy voting schedule in Washington.

At the last one, Amash was booed for his support for GOP plans to repeal Obamacare. But the frequent Trump critic was cheered for issues on which he diverges with the president, such as arguing Trump should release his tax returns.

Amash said that while confrontation might make some of his colleagues uncomfortable, it’s important to engage face to face and to listen “without any screens.”

“These are people you represent, and you should be willing to engage with them and discuss ideas and learn,” he said in an interview.

“At times, you’ll find that there are people who have misunderstandings of your own positions, and you can help clarify your positions by holding town halls. It’s a positive thing to be out there.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted in agreement: “@justinamash is setting the right example. Conservatives should be ready (and eager) to defend and discuss our positions with everyone.”

Where is Dave Trott?

Scott Pickett, a research analyst in Plymouth Township, said he helped start the website after calls and emails by him and some neighbors to Trott’s office went unanswered, save for a form-letter response.

“We want an opportunity to talk to him and hear his explanations for positions,” said Pickett, a Democrat. “Amid all the activity that’s happening, we wanted to be assured that our voice is being heard.”

At the U.S. Capitol last week, Trott told The Detroit News he plans to have an in-person town hall in the future. He hosted a “tele-town hall” this month.

“We’ve been in Washington more at this point in the session than the past several Congresses. So, where is Dave Trott? I’m in Washington voting,” Trott said, steps from the House chamber.

“Most of the people demanding town hall meetings aren’t even from my district, OK?”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested that anti-Trump protests are “a very paid, AstroTurf-type movement.”

Pickett says he’s not paid for his efforts, and he lives in Trott’s district.

Bryan Watson, a retired consultant in West Bloomfield, also lives in Trott’s district and says no one is paying him. He saw the hashtag #wheresdavetrott on Twitter and decided to organize a Tuesday town hall at his public library.

Leslie Rzeznik of Plymouth, who is unpaid, connected on Facebook with other Trott constituents to plan a Thursday town hall in Novi. They recently partnered with the group Michigan People’s Campaign.

“This is an example of a totally organic, grassroots effort,” Rzeznik said.

Trott, a sophomore representative, said he hosted town halls during his first term and intends to hold more, though he’s wary, alluding to heckling by protesters at other GOP town halls.

“If the purpose of the ‘new’ town hall is to be disruptive and draw attention to people’s concerns over the replacement for the Affordable Care Act or President Trump’s immigration policies, I don’t know that a town hall is going to be particularly productive, because I’ve heard those concerns,” said Trott, who supports Trump’s travel ban and repealing Obamacare.

Watson was disappointed to learn last week that Trott will be part of a congressional delegation to India and would not attend his town hall. Watson intends to go ahead without Trott, expecting about 50 people.

“I’m not affiliating myself with any groups. Once I put someone else’s banner on this, then it’s just a partisan shout match,” said Watson, a Democrat.

“I’d like to have a conversation. ... I know this district is heavily Republican. Maybe they don’t know about the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.”

After learning of Trott’s India trip, the Michigan People’s Campaign event is still on, with organizers inviting business owners and immigrants from the district to speak.

“The great thing about the 11th District is there is so much global diversity,” said Meredith Loomis Quinlan, who works for the Michigan People’s Campaign and does not live in Trott’s district.

“We wanted to highlight that he doesn’t need to ‘globeTrott’ — emphasis on the Trott — to find people with whom to build relationships with,” said Loomis Quinlan.

“He can come home to his own district and talk to his constituents.”

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